History of the VHS Tape

The VHS (Video Home System) was a major contributor to the television industry from the 1970s until the mid-2000s. It created the home video industry and completely transformed the economics of the motion picture and television business. It fought its way through a format war to come out victorious and enjoyed a successful stint as the dominant home video format through the tape media period before digital came along.

We owe a lot to the humble VHS tape for providing people with the first mainstream way of enjoying television content at home. Here’s a look at how this tape came to be and its eventual journey into obscurity.

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Before VHS

Before the rise of the VHS, the videotape recorder (VTR) was used in television studios to make recording television cheaper and quicker than using motion picture film stock. The first commercially successful version was released in 1956 by the Amplex Corporation, intended for use only in the professional market.

In 1959, JVC developed a two-head videotape recorder, and by 1960 a colour version for professional broadcasting. They released the DV220 in 1964, which would be the standard VTR until the mid-1970s. JVC collaborated with Sony and Matsushita Electric to build a video recording standard for the Japanese consumer, producing the U-matic format in 1971 – the first cassette format to become a unified standard for different companies.

The U-matic was successful for some broadcast applications for television stations, but very few sold for home use due to cost and limited recording time. Sony and Matsushita broke away to work on formats of their own, with Sony working on Betamax and Matsushita working on VX.

VHS Development

In 1971, JVC wanted to develop a consumer based VTR, so they put together some objectives for their vision:

  • It must be compatible with any standard television set.
  • The tape must have at least a two-hour recording capacity.
  • Picture quality must be similar to air broadcast.
  • Tapes must be interchangeable between machines.
  • The system should be versatile so that it can be scaled and expanded.
  • It should be affordable, easy to operate and have low maintenance costs.
  • Must be capable of being produced in high volume, with interchangeable parts and be easy to service.

The video recording industry in Japan took a hit in 1972, so JVC cut its budgets and restructured the video division, shelving the VHS project. However, the two engineers spearheading the project continued to work on it secretly, creating a functional prototype in 1973.

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VHS vs Betamax

In 1974, the MITI (Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry) wanted to force the Japanese video industry to standardise a home video recording format. Sony had a functional Betamax prototype and wanted to persuade the MITI to adopt Betamax as the standard.

JVC believed an open standard was better for consumers, so it worked with other companies to accept VHS and work against Sony and the MITI. Matsushita agreed out of concern for Sony becoming the leader of its field if the Betamax format was the only one allowed to be manufactured. They also considered the Betamax’s one-hour recording time a disadvantage.

Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Sharp also backed VHS. Sony released the Betamax to the Japanese market in 1975, placing further pressure on the MITI. But the collaboration of JVC and others was stronger, and the MITI dropped its push for an industry standard. JVC released its first VHS machines in Japan in 1976 and in the US in 1977.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Betamax and VHS competed for dominance. Betamax had the advantage of being smaller with a theoretical higher video quality. Still, its shorter recording time proved to be a significant shortcoming, unable to compete with the VHS’s two-hour recording capability. By the time Betamax released an extended cassette to match, VHS had already won the format battle.

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Decline of VHS

The VHS was a mainstay in people’s homes for more than 20 years from the 1970s. But with the introduction of the DVD format to American consumers in 1997, the decline began. DVDs were more compact, had a clearer picture and did not need rewinding. So this new technology swept in, and the VHS never recovered.

DVD rentals surpassed VHS rentals in the US for the first time in June 2003, and though 94.5 million Americans still owned VHS format VCRs in 2005, the market share continued to drop. In the mid-2000s, retail chains in Europe and the US announced they would stop selling VHS equipment. Today, no major retailers stock VHS home-video releases, now focusing on DVD and Blu-ray media.

The last manufacturer of VHS equipment was Funai of Japan, which made their last VCR in July 2016. They ceased production, citing falling sales and a shortage of components.

Today, if you still want to get your hands on a VCR or a VHS tape, you can find them being flogged online on sites like eBay. If you still have VHS copies of your home videos from years gone by, make sure you give them a format upgrade to keep your precious footage safe. At Video2DVD, we can perform a high-quality video transfer to DVD or digital format. Contact us today to learn more.