The machines had been out a while, but had taken some time to become widely affordable. In 1978 the first video cassette recorders went on sale in Britain. One of the first was JVC’s HR-3300EK, which was sold at Dixons for £798.75 — equivalent to more than £2,000 in today’s money. The early machines weighed up to 13 pounds and were piano key operated top-loader with red clocks and timers.
The video rental market was the first to take off and sales of the VCR soon followed. In 1979 hit films such as Bugsy Malone and Doctor in the House went on sale priced between £19.95 and £49.95.
It was not long before VCRs became lighter and their appearance changed; they went on to reign supreme for more than 20 years.
But it wasn’t plain sailing. In the early 1980s a fierce fight for control broke out among rival formats of recorder when VHS, developed by JVC, took on Sony’s Betamax. VHS won, largely because it was the format favoured by rental shops, which most people used because of the still relatively high cost of purchasing the videos.
Although most engineers preferred Beta to VHS, commercial pressures made VHS the hands-down winner. In 1988 Sony bit the bullet and started making VHS machines. By 1990, more than 200 million video cassette recorders a year were sold worldwide. By 1998, 100 million VHS recorders were sold in the UK alone.
But after 30 glorious years, the reign of the VHS has come to an end. The new king of home-viewed entertainment is quite clearly the DVD. New figures from the British Video Association show that just 10 million VHS videos were sold in 2005, compared with 211 million DVDs. The number of videos sold represented just 5 per cent of the market, which was dominated by DVD sales — a huge change from 2000 when VHS sales were 85 per cent of the total market.
Lavinia Carey, director-general of the British Video Association (BVA), said: “Very few people are buying VHS recorders, when DVD players and recorders can be bought so cheaply. I recently saw a DVD recorder for sale in a supermarket for £69 and players can be bought for less than £20.”
The final nail in the coffin for the VCR is that DVD players and recorders can now be sold at huge discounts.
A year ago, Dixons, one of the first to stock VHS recorders, made the landmark decision to ditch the VCR because of falling sales and the increasing popularity of DVDs. It wasn’t a difficult decision for the retailer when sales of DVD players were outstripping sales of VCRs by 40 to 1. And as night follows day, Dixons will be followed by other chains, inevitably consigning the VCR to oblivion.
J Sainsbury yesterday told The Times that VHS releases “will be phased out” at the supermarket. A spokeswoman said that, in 2004, VHS accounted for only 6 per cent of video sales, while 94 per cent were on DVD. VHS sales dropped to 1 per cent in 2005. “The decline in sales shows there is not much of a future for VHS releases and these will be phased out. Most people only buy fitness or children’s videos on VHS, as they may have a video player in the spare room.”
Asda also revealed that VHS sales have “dropped dramatically” in the past year, falling from 20 per cent in 2004 to 10 per cent in 2005. A spokeswoman for Asda said there were no plans to stop selling VHS releases. “We will continue selling VHS as long as the movie studios continue producing them.”
But there is increasing pressure on film studios to drop VHS releases altogether. Although there is no sign yet of an end to VHS production, sources say this is under consideration at some film studios.
Manufacturers have also seen the market move away from VHS. A spokeswoman for Sony told The Times it “will phase out production of stand-alone VHS players”, producing one model in 2006, as opposed to three in 2005.
Retailers and manufacturers alike cannot escape the fact that video cassettes are likely to join record players and Rubik cubes as objects of nostalgic affection.
However, inevitably, the dominance of the DVD player will pass, too. The BVA’s Lavinia Carey added: “There is no doubt that DVD is now leading the way, but I doubt it will have as long a life as the VHS.”
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