Is VCR's time winding down?

Tapes: To the dismay of VHS fans, experts say the days of cassettes are numbered as the conversion to DVD picks up steam.

August 01, 2002|By James Cummings | James Cummings,COX NEWS SERVICE

Rebecca Wehrkamp owns more than 400 VHS videotapes. They're in special drawers her husband built for the family's home entertainment center, they're on bookshelves and they're piled in boxes.

And Wehrkamp, like many other VHS lovers, is afraid her precious videotapes are about to become obsolete.

Circuit City officials announced this spring that the electronics store chain would no longer offer new movies on videotape; current and future releases will be available on DVD only.

Wehrkamp, who lives in Troy, Ohio, sees the writing on the wall: VHS videotape is about to go the way of Betamax tape, vinyl records and eight-track tapes. First new titles in VHS format will disappear, and then, she fears, it will become as hard to replace a VCR as it is to find a good eight-track player.

"I'm starting to worry that my whole collection is going to become useless," Wehrkamp said.

According to Jeff Joseph, vice president for communication of the Consumer Electronics Association, many people fear that VHS tapes and VCRs will quickly disappear, but that isn't likely to happen soon.

"The rumors of the death of the VCR are premature," Joseph said. "The average household has 10 videotapes and many have a lot more. There's just no incentive for people to disenfranchise that population by suddenly getting rid of VHS technology."

Joseph said it probably will happen someday that DVDs will supplant VHS tapes, but VHS is still the more popular medium and the transition to DVD will be gradual.

The major advantage VHS technology has right now is that VCRs that record as well as play are cheap, Joseph said.

While it's easy to buy a VCR for under $100 and blank tapes for $1 to $2, DVD recorders are new on the market and typically cost $700 to $2,000. Blank discs that can be recorded on one time cost about $4, and discs that can be recorded multiple times cost about $8.

Machines that play DVDs but don't record are becoming cheaper, and models costing around $100 are plentiful.

Joseph said Americans bought 16.2 million new DVD players last year. But, he said, almost 30 million VCRs were sold in the United States last year including standard VCRs, stereo VCRs and VCR-TV combination units.

According to the Video Software Dealers Association, DVDs' share of the rental market jumped by 14 percent in the first six months of this year. The association said consumers still spent $2.7 billion renting VHS tapes (999 million rentals) vs. $1.2 billion renting DVDs (372 million rentals) in the first half of the year, but the gap is closing.

The trend is clear, Joseph said. The march from analog formats like VHS toward digital formats like DVD is unstoppable, and the analog formats eventually will be gone.

That doesn't sit well with Dick Carlson of West Alexandria, Ohio.

"I resent these companies shoving things down my throat that I didn't ask for," Carlson said. "There's nothing wrong with the tapes and the system I have. VCRs are simple and cheap, and they work."

Carlson has an extensive, irreplaceable VHS collection of 700 to 800 tapes that reflect his personal tastes. Most, including his Dr. Who archive, are taped from public television broadcasts. They will likely never be available as prerecorded DVDs even if he wanted to buy them.

"They say DVDs have better picture quality, but I'm perfectly satisfied with the picture quality I've always gotten," Carlson said. "I'm watching for content; the quality isn't that critical that I would go through all the trouble and expense to change."

Carlson also said that he has no interest in buying a DVD recorder and transferring his tapes' content to DVDs.

Copying old tapes to DVDs is what the consumer electronics industry is promoting, and that's what Joseph expects most owners of treasured tapes to do.

VHS tapes wear out, especially if played often. DVD recordings, on the other hand, are designed to last indefinitely even when played every day.

"Going from VHS to DVD is going to be a lot like going from vinyl records to CDs," Joseph said. "That was a huge, but long transition. It took place over about a decade.

"I think it will be quite a while before VHS is gone entirely. By the time we get to the point where you may have to record that legacy VHS content on DVD, DVD recorders will be very affordable."

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