VHS lives on--just barely

Advent of DVR technology, along with the dominance of DVDs, has left VCRs as barely an afterthought.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
Don't tell English inventor James Larsson that a VCR is useless.

He's got an idea what to do with that aging video gear--turn it into an automatic cat feeder, using the VCR's timer to dispense food on a regular schedule. (Click here to see photos of the feeder.)

Writing for Make magazine, Larsson described how an old VCR--assuming its timer was still operational--could be turned into a "programmabowl VCR" designed to ensure that pets be fed on time in their owners' absence.

"The crux of it is that when a VCR becomes redundant or becomes faulty, it's usually the case that the system that runs timing and motor control are the last to die," Larsson said. "Mostly, people junk their VCRs because the picture is becoming a bit weird, but there's usually a lot of life left in a junked VCR, and I wanted to take advantage of that."

VCR pet feeder

While few people may be quite as creative in creating a second life for their VCRs, one point is irrefutable: The once-ubiquitous consumer technology is on that slow road to niche status already traveled by record players, cassette players and (dare we say?) 8-track decks.

Of course, the death of VCRs and the VHS format has been long expected, but sales numbers are now starting to back up that prediction.

Holly Vershum, a manager in Blockbuster's brand public relations department, noted that revenue from rentals of VHS tapes was 31.7 percent in full year 2003, but was only 5.5 percent for the second quarter of 2005. By the same comparison, revenue from DVD rentals throughout the company skyrocketed from 57.3 percent to 84.1 percent.

DVDs aren't the only culprit. Hard drives on computers and handheld gadgets are also becoming a place for people to store commercial movies and home videos.

Nonetheless, the death of VHS is hardly something that will happen overnight--if ever. After all, there's still a collectibles market for LPs. And a few diehards still use the Betamax videotape format, simply because it can be cool in "digerati" circles to own something that's so uncommon.

"(VHS) is far from being a dead format," said Andrew Shadgett, the manager of a Streetlight Records outlet in San Francisco. "We still sell several hundred pieces a month."

Yet even Shadgett acknowledges that VHS is little more than an afterthought at his store. While hundreds upon hundreds of DVDs dominate the entryway, VHS tapes are relegated to a small section of the very back of the outlet's upper floor.

"(VHS) is far from being a dead format."
--Andrew Shadgett, manager, Streetlight Records, San Francisco

Most of the tapes cost less than $5, with many selling for less than $3. A complete set of the "Star Wars" trilogy on VHS goes for $9.95. Its DVD counterpart downstairs costs $44.95. A used copy of "Traffic" on DVD sells for $9.95, while the VHS version fetches only $3.95.

At least Streetlight has a notable VHS section. On a recent visit to a nearby Tower Records, the store devoted nearly an entire floor to thousands of DVDs, but had a mere 161 VHS tapes for sale in a display no more than 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep.

According to some in the video industry, these disparities accurately reflect the state of the video store in late 2005.

Retro status ahead
Perhaps further signaling the VCR's demise are the creative ways consumers such as Larsson are choosing to use their machines.

Other VCR hacks include a project that turns one of the machines into a TiVo-like personal video recorder; a modification to build a PC inside a VCR case; the transformation of a VHS cassette into a children's racecar; and others.

Larsson grudgingly admits that turning a VCR into a pet feeder may be one of last ways it can be made useful, but he also says it may be too early to completely write off the machines.

After all, he said, high-end amplifiers with vacuum tubes are now luxury items, decades after the tube technology was thought to be dead. Also, he noted, Super-8 is seen as an attractive film media by artists.

"I feel strongly that there is a tiny niche among people who appreciate a particular kind of distortion and image quality that is (VHS)," Larsson said. "I would be surprised if in 10 years there wasn't some kind of high-end VCR still manufactured."

In the meantime, Shadgett explained, there is still one hot market for VHS titles.

"People will pay more for things that aren't on DVD," Shadgett said. "If you look on eBay, people pay a lot of money for VHS tapes that are not on DVD, like old classics. A lot of movies from the '30s, '40s, '50s (aren't on DVD), and God knows if they ever will be."

For example, Shadgett pointed to a VHS copy of the 1971 Lewis Gilbert film "Friends". Because it is not available on DVD, he explained, sellers on Amazon.com are asking for nearly $60 for the film, while those on eBay ask $25 or more.

But what happens when and if the film comes out on DVD?

"We'll probably sell it for a dollar," Shadgett said.