An amazing era has come to an end, and like the man said, "Not with a bang but with a whimper." And that was the 30-year run of the VCR deck as an industry mainstay product.
It was kind of unnoticed, as it seems the freestanding VCR was here one day and just about gone the next. It came to my attention last fall when I noticed that the right audio channel of my Panasonic VCR wasn't putting out a signal.
I knew that I wanted to replace it with a VCR/DVD player combo, so I wasn't paying much attention to the in-store selection. I spotted what I wanted and it wasn't until after I went through the purchase routine ("No thank you, I do not want fries with that order.") that I looked around the store and realized there were no VCR decks on display.
I sort of shrugged that off as an anomaly until recently, when I was told that the company that was always one of the VHS market leaders would be discontinuing stand-alone decks this year after it sold out its current stock.
That got me interested and so I went online to see just what was in the market for Christmas, and learned that the deck era was indeed over. I started by checking warehouse clubs. That was quick, as neither Costco nor Sam's Club offered a single consumer model.
How about major CE retailers? Best Buy indicated it had just one, a $60 Panasonic four-head. Circuit City showed two available for in-store sale, a Panasonic and a Zenith, and offered seven JVCs, including the digital HD model, but for online order only.
Decks were totally shut out on the sites of Sears and Tweeter, while RadioShack and Target indicated they had Sylvania closeouts for in-store sale and, like Circuit, JVCs for online order.
Pickings were equally slim when it came to suppliers. Philips, RCA, Sanyo and Samsung had no consumer VCRs to show online searchers. Sharp, which also had none, at least offered this explanation: "Sharp USA is not featuring new VCR models at this time." LG Electronics had none either, though its subsidiary Zenith showed one in its catalog of 2006 products.
Funai, which also makes and markets products under the Emerson, Sylvania and Symphonic brands, showed no decks on any of its sites, though of course its Sylvania models are in stores. Daewoo had two decks, a mono and a stereo. Sony also showed two, both stereo.
Of course there were lots of TV/VCR and VCR/DVD combos available, so the VCR isn't yet ready to be sent to the land of the extinct. And a 30-year product life span isn't something to be sneezed at either. Over that stretch by my count, based on historic CEA data, more than 280 million VCR decks were sold to U.S. consumers, and that's quite an achievement. It took color TV 36 years to accumulate that volume, and black-and-white TV, which launched the video market back in 1947, never reached that cumulative total although it's been on sale for 60 years.
But I believe that it's to the VCR that we owe the current shape of our industry. Until the VCR, video was a totally passive activity and we were all tied to the broadcast schedule. Also, I think the arrival of the VCR, and seeing the color quality produced on new TVs in stores showing prerecorded tapes, prompted VCR owners to trade up to new, better-performing TVs. As for evidence of that, it wasn't until 1977, the second year of VCR sales, that the industry had its first 10-million color sales year, and it was from there the video sales boom took off.