VHS stands for Video Home System and is the name of a type of videotape cassette. It entered the format war alongside Betamax in the late 70s–early 80s and ultimately won before DVD and Blu-ray came onto the scene in the 90s and 00s.
This is the tag page for VHS where you’ll read about VHS technology including videotapes and VHS culture.
I grew up in the 90s and used VHS tapes predominately until the late 00s (although I still have a VCR which I watch tapes on when I can be bothered to plug it in). As a fan of Swiss Style posters as well, this is a combined nostalgic delight. Look at the vibrant colours!
This year, I’ve noticed more and more the billions Disney has lost due to terrible business ventures. The only reason why they’ve been allowed to do it is because they’ve made many billions more and… it’s Disney.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot thanks to Yesterworld Entertainment, a YouTube channel that “exists outside of the tangible reality of the present where we explore and investigate theme parks, movies, video games & Entertainment stories of the past”.
In this episode, they examined the history of Walt Disney Home Video and the infamous Disney vault, a collection of Disney films used by Walt Disney Animation Studios for home video releases. The convoluted but lucrative process is explained in the video but in a nutshell, Disney released movies on VHS for a limited time, then put them “in the vault” for a number of years before re-releasing them, therefore controlling the availability—and scarcity—of its media property.
But as Yesterworld shows, it was a confusing and frustrating ideology.
“We’ve managed to accrue 5,000-plus tapes from donations and thrifting. We’re always playing something on the bar’s projector, and used to have movie screenings on Monday nights. Essentially, we had more than enough stock to start renting tapes, so it felt natural.”
Nestled in an alleyway in Bristol is 20th Century Flicks, the world’s last video rental shop. Arthur Cauty directed a short documentary film about the shop, which has been open since 1982, featuring the owners and its employees talking about what it means to them and the community.
It’s an ode to the video shop experience and a bygone way of watching movies. With studios like Disney launching their own streaming services and joining industry kingpins such as Netflix and Hulu, we have an almost endless flow of entertainment available at the click of a button. It’s amazing to me that a little independent video store can survive the Netflix cull and even outlive Blockbuster. Drop into the shop next time you’re in Bristol for a dose of movie nostalgia, have a chat about film and go home with a VHS rarity and a bag of popcorn.
And if you’re wondering how 20th Century Flicks is doing during the pandemic, the shop isn’t open but a reduced service is underway:
We are currently on lockdown to keep the shop, staff and stock healthy. We are still able to post movies out to you (3 at a time for £12) including a clean prepaid envelope to return them. We’d like them back a couple of weeks after you’ve received them. For details and instructions, click here!
Imagine getting a late fee in 2020 from the oldest video rental shop in the world. I’d be so embarrassed.
VHS might be old hat now but that doesn’t stop people from collecting them or keeping them around. Check your attic, I bet you’ll find boxes of tapes. My love of VHS is more overt as I have two VCRs in my house (although one is broken so that’ll need replacing) and a humble collection of tapes, some recorded, some official.
I could digitise them but that costs money on equipment and I don’t care enough to do it. Fortunately, some people did and uploaded their works to The Internet Archive’s VHS Vault. It’s a treasure trove of nostalgia with over 25,000 uploaded videos covering all kinds of genres.
(Content warning: contains nudity from the offset)
If the horror part is watching a naked woman not wash her legs in the shower, consider this a scarefest. In fact, why did it even start with a sultry shower scene when it’s not a porno? Here’s the synopsis from IMDB:
After a nice shower, Linnea does some warm-up stretches and then goes for a run. She encounters some flabby zombies who follow her back to the house, where she leads them in some poolside aerobic routines. Later she unwinds by inviting some girlfriends over for a slumber party and some exercise. When something goes bump in the house, her friends begin experiencing an attrition problem.
What’s the point in weight loss for the undead? Fatphobia is truly boundless.
AJ Brown is a Power Rangers fan so I’m sure he’d appreciate this and correct me if I’ve got anything wrong in this description.
This video appears to be an episode from the “Psycho Ranger” story arc where the evil Astronema creates a team of Psycho Rangers to gain more power. I only ever watched Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers but I did notice Zordon and Bulk & Skull in the credits so that was pleasant to see.
The results are impressive: Huge boxes of candy; old toys, posters, and promotional cardboard cutouts; enough old magazines to make your local dentist blush; a foam board ceiling; and an ugly, slightly dizzying ’90s carpet. As you’ll see in the below tour, the videos are sorted by genre—from horror to comedy to old professional wrestling pay-per-views.
While I could find better uses for a basement if I had one (that I owned anyway), I admire the dedication to detail and 90s VHS culture. I still own and covet my VHS tapes and understand where Collins is coming from, at least on a basic level.
Unfortunately(?), this faux-video store is only for show so you can’t visit or purchase anything because nobody should voluntarily go to a stranger’s basement for any reason.
I was born after the Betamax came and went. In fact, I heard more about it in terms of its demise than any kind of praise for the technology. VHS was my life right up until 2006 (although I still use it to this day). If I’d been born a few years earlier, I might have seen the shift.
But for many, Betamax was a cult classic and Sony only stopped production and sales of Betamax products in March 2016. So let’s look at the rise, fall, and legacy of this iconic piece of video culture.
What is Betamax?
Sony’s Betamax (also known as Beta) was a video cassette format introduced in Japan on 10th May 1975. It was released as way for consumers to record everything from weddings to their favourite soap operas. The cassettes used a similar format to the U-matic, a Sony prototype cassette from the late 60s. but with a thinner design (0.5 inches vs. the U-matic’s 0.75inch width).
Betamax for professional recording
Betamax had a major influence on news broadcasting and music production for different reasons. Sony released the Betacam in 1982, the professional version of the Betamax, and it quickly became the most-used video format in electronic news-gathering (or ENG for short).
While the Betamax and Betacam formats were very similar, the difference between them was significant for professional recording. Betamax recorded in a lower-quality resolution and audio, using only two recording heads, while Betacam used four recording heads, producing a higher video resolution and audio quality.
In music recording, Sony created a digital recording system known as PCM that connected to Betamax recorders. The Sony PCM-F1 adaptor came with a Betamax VCR SL-2000 as a “portable digital audio recording system” and it became a mainstay for audio engineers when they made their masters.
Betamax for home movies
While Betamax enjoyed a good life in the professional market, it didn’t fare as well at the consumer level. Sony released its first Beta device in the US in November 1975 – the LV-1901 that came with a 19-inch colour monitor. There was also the Sony SL-6200, which came as part of the Sony LV-1901 with its teakwood cabinet, a 24-hour timer and camera input. The set also allowed you to record one channel and watch another which was an incredible feat back then.
But stiff competition in the West from JVC’s VHS format lead to its downfall outside of Japan. Their market share in the US rose to 60% by 1980 and left Sony in the dust. It was also cheaper to make VHS tapes in Europe, which pushed the format even further. That led to a gradual decline in Betamax tapes in the 80s, down to a market share of just 7.5% in 1986.
Higher quality in Japan
Even though Betamax wasn’t as successful in the West, Sony managed to localise its power in the videotape format war and build on it. The company released the SuperBetamax (1985) and Extended Definition Betamax (1988) formats, both offering better resolutions.
SuperBeta, as it was known, offered a horizontal resolution almost identical to live television at the time. However, the chroma resolution remained subpar in comparison.
In 1988, Sony released its ED Beta, or “Extended Definition” Betamax line, with 500 lines of horizontal resolution, matching DVD quality (which wouldn’t come out for another 7 years). Improvements were made to format to reduce the transport to reduce picture abnormalities and produce a better quality picture.
Tape length wars
Besides the general “videotape format war”, there was a subsidiary tape length war instigated by the RCA (Radio Corporation of America). The corporation tried to collaborate with Sony in making a format but wanted a 4-hour tape. Sony didn’t feel the Betamax was up to recording 4-hours of tape and maintaining a high-quality picture.
RCA went to JVC with the same proposal but received the same response although parent company Matsushita eventually gave in. This forced Sony’s hand and it managed to eek out 5 hours of Betamax footage with its Beta-III speed on an ultra-thin L-830 cassette. JVC more than doubled it with 10.5 hours on a T-210 cassette.
Sony’s range of consumer camcorders for the Betamax format, it was notorious for not including a playback function and it was later abandoned in favour of the Video8.
In June 1983, Sony added hi-fi audio to videotape as a way to edge JVC’s VHS format out of the market. However, JVC created its own VHS hi-fi system, about a year after the SL-5200 player was released.
Pioneer’s VX90 was basically a SL-HF900 without the Sony logo on it. It produced high-quality SuperBeta pictures and that Beta Hi-Fi stereo sound.
Marantz Stereo VR 200
Sanyo’s Beta player was the first consumer recorder to offer a quality stereo VCR (thanks to enhanced Dolby signal processing).
Toshiba BetaMax V-M40
Toshiba’s model was priced was $379 upon release in 1984. The V-M40 included a 7-day timer, 12 channel selector, a clock, and a moisture detector which shut the system down if moisture was found.
Zenith VR 8510
Produced by Sony for Zenith, the 8510 featured a SpeedSearch picture scan function and SuperScan, allowing users to switch into “fast speed mode” to view where they were in the fast-foward/rewinding process.
Sanyo Betacord VCR 4590
As you might have guessed, it was called Betacord due to its corded remote control.
Failure to adapt – the true demise of Betamax
Despite the sharp decline in sales of Betamax recorders in the late 1980s and subsequent halt in production of new recorders by Sony in 2002, Beta, SuperBeta and EDBeta are still being used by a small number of people. Even though Sony stopped making new cassettes in 2016, new old stocks of Betamax cassettes are still available for purchase at online shops and used recorders (as well as cassettes) are often found at flea markets, thrift stores or on Internet auction sites.
Betacam cassettes are still available in professional circles but generally, Beta is nothing more than a novelty collector’s item. The simple reason why Betamax lost to VHS was Sony’s inability to cater to the general public. They wanted a medium that could record for longer, even if it meant compromising quality. Its legacy now lies in nostalgia and comedic devices.
A curious oddity is that Sony continued to make Beta recorders right up to 2002. But there have been some influential uses of Betamax, as we covered in an article about Marion Stokes.
This is a remarkable story. Atlas Obscura wrote about a woman who had recorded over 30 years of television on roughly 71,000 VHS and Betamax cassettes in Philadelphia. Her name was Marion Stokes.
Marion began her recordings in the 70s all the way until her death in 2012 and passed them around different apartments, family, and storage units, likely due to their quantity. Now, The Internet Archive is aiming to digitize every single tape. Problem is, they aren’t in any kind of order:
They got a little jumbled as they were transferred […] Although no one knew it at the time, the recordings Stokes made from 1975 until her death in 2012 are the only comprehensive collection preserving this period in television media history.
I love VHS tapes. I have two VCRs in my house – one bought for my birthday a few years ago and one inherited from my mum when she moved abroad. My collection is ~0.14% of Marion Stokes’s but they each tape is a gateway to my past. The fact that she recorded 71,000 of them over 4.5 decades is almost unfathomable. Even more so because it’s the best preservation of television history in this period. I follow a lot of YouTube accounts that upload old UK adverts and TV idents from the 80s and 90s for nostalgic purposes. I find those fascinating. This archive is something else.
Yes, I’m 5 years late and the series just finished but everyone was unhappy with the last season so let’s remember the good times. And mix them up with late 80s nostalgia.
YouTuber Mikolaj.Birek put together two Game of Thrones videos to make a fantastic 80s VHS intro. The font used for the titles was also used on Diagnosis Murder amongst other things so this is a late 80s/early 90s kinda mix but that synth soundtrack is pure 80s.
I’m a nostalgia freak. There was a lot in the 90s I only saw but never fully experienced and that decade was the happiest of my life. VHS tapes played a major part of that and I love hearing about collectors, especially ones this quirky.
Friends Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are known as the VHS Guys and they’ve been collecting VHS tapes for over 25 years. But not just any VHS tape. Their collection falls under the “special interests” category or “not meant to be shown in public,” as Prueher put it in an interview with Atlas Obscura. Anything from exercise videos to how-to video guides is up for consideration. The pair take their collective on tour with their Found Footage Festival events in front of live audiences.
One of the creepiest videos in the VHS Guys collection has to be Rent-A-Friend, where the man in the video will be your “friend” in exchange for nothing (well, however much you initially paid for the VHS but that’s all). It’s an example of an “interactive” video; all the rage in the 80s and 90s. They ask you a question and leave pause for you to “answer”. I remember playing a 90s board game called Atmosfear using this “technology” (sorry for all the quotations but they’re necessary). At 4, it felt like magic because it really WAS talking back to me.
One of my favourite accounts on Twitter has to be @CoolFilmArt. It’s a treasure trove of, well, cool film art with incredible posters from all over the world. We spoke to Robyn, one of the curators of the account about its origins and some of her favourite film posters.
So, how did the @CoolFilmArt account come about?
My pal Jim helps run @CoolBoxArt and I basically ripped the idea off two years ago but for film posters, I also made a list on Letterboxd back in 2013 and thought wow that would be a cool Twitter account. My main basis for choosing a film to watch is 99% what the poster looks like so I thought other people would enjoy them as much as I do. There’s other poster accounts out there but I think we cater to a pretty niche market, like if you were to upturn a stone in between the woodlice you would find our kind of posters, haha.
How do you “curate” the film art you post?
Mostly I find stuff on Google, I like to look for Hollywood posters from other countries (Japan posters are always wild), VHSCollector is a big source for me, loads of hi-res scans of VHS box art! Tumblr also has a good community of poster enthusiasts. If I post fan posters I always try and link back to the original artist, some of them are so good though that you can’t tell if it’s official or not!
Do you have any ambitions to branch out to other channels like Facebook or with a blog?
I already run a film blog @bimbomoviebash and there are no plans to expand CoolFilmArt out. It was always meant to be this very simple idea of just posting posters, I kind of hate it when you follow an account for one thing and they start bringing all their personal stuff into it so I try and keep that to a minimum. Just posters posters posters!
Would you say creative film posters are a dying breed now?
Back in the 80s film rentals and sales were driven so hard by the poster, like you could take a video off the shelf and it would be the poster that swung it. In the day and age of the internet you can’t disguise a shitty film with flashy artwork anymore so there’s really no need for it. It’s definitely a dying art, which is a shame. I can’t stomach a lot of posters now, the trend of just putting absolutely everything on the poster sucks, like Force Awakens, however if something looks interesting now (like that neon green Thor Ragnarok poster) it definitely stands out. I think artistic posters are making a bit of a comeback now because all these kids who grew up in the 80s are making their own films now, but sadly it’s just not important anymore.
Paul Verhoeven. No one rivals his eye for flashy gaudiness or his bite. People are only just starting to GET Showgirls. What a legacy.
Jeff Goldblum, I could watch him for hours. Tony Leung, Traci Lords, Divine, Linnea Quigley, Denzel, Jill Schoelen like, the list is never-ending!
Are there any film posters you hate and if so, why?
I’ve never met a Christopher Nolan poster that I’ve liked.
What kind of influence do you think film and film art have on culture in modern times?
I think we’re living in both the worst and best time for movies at the moment. Some days it feels like we’re in a never-ending chasm of superhero reboots that are never ever going to stop, and they all look the same and they swallow up and coming directors into this cycle and then don’t give them the creative freedom to do anything that was the reason they hired them. On the other hand you have stuff like Get Out that swept us all up in a way you wouldn’t think could ever happen anymore, it’s like we all forgot our cynicism and were able to come together to enjoy this truly great movie and things like that make me think we’re going to be okay.