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Zero to DVD in 30 Years

When I was a kid in the early 70s, Star Trek ruled in my life. The show had gone into syndication, and was shown each afternoon after school. My friends and I would soak up each episode, and gather outside to hash over the details, swoon over Spock (or Kirk) and play out the episode in the back yards of our assorted houses. If I missed an episode, I’d have to wait months- or even years- to see it again. We had to cultivate great memories and imaginations to keep us going during the summer months. One kid even kept a ‘log’ to make notes on the various episodes, and we could rattle off episode names from memory. Trek fandom was in its home-brew infancy- these were the days before the corporate moneymongers took over the SF and Trek conventions. We were still too young to go, but I think we would have handily won any trivia contests. One thing we wished we all had was a playback device for us to watch the episodes over and over again.

VTRs did exist in the 70s, but they were huge, unwieldy open-reel machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars. TV stations used them to record broadcasts of programs to be played back later. Such things weren’t made for home use. In the mid-70s, the home videocassette recorder, the Sony Betamax, made its debut for the well-heeled early adapters. These machines were also huge, and very costly- well over a grand. The tapes weren’t very long, and the picture quality was very good, but not stunning. Also debuting were the video recording kits- which had a separate camera and recorder. (If you look at the movie "Jaws", you’ll see someone with one of these things. Also notice the total lack of SUVs, computers, cell-phones and headphones worn by people. It was a whole different world…)

Soon, another manufacturer came out with the Video Home System – or VHS, and the Video Wars of the late 70s and early 80s began. Beta was superior in picture quality, but it was higher in price. VHS won the war in the mid-80s by having tape lengths that corresponded to movie and TV show timings, and lower prices. Beta is still used extensively in TV studios today, so it won the professional war. I cannot help but compare this to the PC vs. Macintosh wars of the late 80s and early 90s, where the superior system (Macintosh) lost the war making the same errors Sony did: not permitting anyone else to make their machines, and pricing them too highly, despite their technical superiority. Hey- I would have bought a Betamax if it had been priced right, and I had to choose the 486 over the Macintosh, because the 486 was a couple of grand cheaper. So, I probably helped to bury two technically superior systems.

But I digress. When I bought my first VCR in 1982, it cost $800, had a wired remote control, and monaural sound. I figured out a way to rig it up to my little stereo to ‘sweeten’ the sound, but it was just bigger mono. Movies cost over a hundred dollars, so I snagged most of mine off of HBO. My second VCR was purchased in 1986, cost $600, and was one of the first hi-fi models on the market. Movie prices had come down a little, but not much. I rented most of mine. In 1991, I purchased my third, and still current VCR- a wonderful $400 Hitachi war-horse with all the hi-fi bells and whistles. I’ve taken good care of it, and it has only been in the shop one time- to repair a broken plastic thingy. I may purchase one more VCR, but I seriously think that my sturdy old Hitachi will be my last VCR I’ll ever get.

You see, a couple of years ago, I got lucky. I was then working at a major-name electronics retailer in computer sales. One of the things the management would do would be to have staff meetings, and to spice things up, they’d collect the ‘open box’ returned items that were written off, and have drawings for them. One of these items was an orphaned Apex AD-600A DVD player. It was the object of everyone’s desire. There was a drawing, and I won it. It is a first-generation DVD player, with the inherent quirks of such a machine, but my getting it springboarded me into Movie Heaven.

I adore DVD. The picture quality leaves even Beta and S-VHS hanging out to dry, and the sheer convenience of CD-sized disks that don’t need coddling or rewinding is worth the price alone. But there are other goodies. Like the sound…it is as far away from my early jerry-rigged ‘home theater’ as a scooter is from a rocket. It is even better than some of the sticky-floored shoebox cinemas with their rude audiences and sprung seats. Half the time, the operators don’t even turn ON the damn surround sound, and I have to remind these kids that I paid good money to see the movie as it was intended to be seen. "Oops," I’ll hear. Click! Scratchy surround sound. Grumble, snarl.

Well, since I triumphantly carted home my DVD player, I’ve hardly gone to the movies at all. In fact, today marks a whole year since I’ve darkened the door of the local movie house. I may never go to the theater again. My popcorn is cheaper, I can pet my cats, play back the scenes I want to see over again, don’t have to shout down talkers or glare at people who are dumb enough to bring toddlers to NC-17 movies, and the sound …to quote Neo: Whoa. Sure, I have to wait for the movie to go to disk, but that doesn’t bother me. I’ve waited this long, I’ll wait a little longer.

Not only that, but with the DVD, especially the ones by Criterion, you’ll get the movie the director WANTED you to see, complete with extra goodies like commentary tracks, featurettes (like "Bullet Time" on the Matrix), previews and alternate versions of the film. It’s like going to film school. My biggest treat was watching "Apollo 13" with the company of Apollo 13 astronaut Jim and his wife Marilyn Lovell talking about how the movie people pretty much copied their home, and other interesting little stories.

Today, I listened to a report on NPR that said that the market penetration of DVDs into homes was three times faster than CDs, and ten times faster than VHS. I think I know why: DVD players are quite reasonably priced- even the expensive multidisk ones are mostly under $500, and you can get some for under $100. Compare that to the early VCR prices- $1200 and more. The progression of improvements to the system has been very fast- I plan to purchase a second DVD player that will play the super huge contents of today’s DVDs. My poor little first-generation Apex chokes on them- and the player is less than three years old.

The movies themselves are also reasonably priced, there are lots of titles available, and you can find them everywhere, and considering what extra goodies you’ll get- a real bargain. The three rental places I frequent are beginning to reduce their VHS inventories in favor of DVDs, and this has caused a few complaints by folks who are still tape-oriented. Another wonderful innovation are online places like Netflix, where you can rent thousands of movies four titles at a time by mail, with no time limit on returns- but you don’t get a new movie until you turn in one you’ve rented.

Yesterday, I stood in my living room, holding a DVD that, as a kid, my friends and I would have killed for- an episode of the classic Star Trek called "Amok Time". It did everything we longed as kids to do: jump to favorite scenes, clearly freeze frame certain shots, run backwards and forwards, speak in different languages, and even capture scenes to be printed out on a printer. (I used to design costumes for SF conventions, so that last bit would have been really useful during my convention-going heyday.) I stood there, and thought about what 25 years has done to both TV viewing and imagination- and marveled. We have come so very far technologically.

I do feel a little sorry for today’s kids- they’ll have to learn how to use their minds and imaginations in a different way, and may never use them the way my peers and I did. In creating these electronic marvels, perhaps we have lost the ancient skills that our ancestors used to keep stories alive. My friends and I used these techniques in play, entertaining ourselves for endless hours without videos or electronic games. Were we the last generation to do things this way? Perhaps so. We have traded imagination for programming- incredibly high-fidelity and marvelous programming, but still someone else’s vision. Spielburg, Lucas, and other great directors of today’s films had ‘deprived’ childhoods similar to my own, where they honed their imaginary and storytelling skills to the finest edge, and went on to use these skills to create wonderful movies. And now, kids today watch these movies, over and over again. Will they take up the spark, or will this era end when the last of the pre-video generation passes away? I suppose only time will tell. Get back with me in another 15 years, and we’ll take a look.

2001 Sunfell

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