Why I Still Watch Video Tapes in the Age Of Netflix
Every couple of years, I take it upon myself to rewatch Lost. Even after all the controversy and the analysis and the frustration about the ending, I still consider it one of the great accomplishments in television history. (Each time I do so I come a little closer to thinking the finale works. It’s still going to take five or six more for me to believe it.). However, this time I’m watching a bit differently then the previous ones.
In the summer of 2019, I found a collection of old VHS recordings of the first three seasons of Lost available on Ebay, apparently taped when the series originally aired from 2004 to 2007. Even though I own all of the DVDs and can easily find the series on streaming, I jumped at the opportunity to get the tapes. And every so often, I’ll take a look on Ebay to see if I can find another collection of the same tapes for the second half, though I admit that the odds are slim to none.
VHS was going out of style even when Lost was airing its original episodes, and considering that one can now watch any show anytime thanks to streaming or DVDs, one wonders why someone my age would hold fast to his VCR even now. Part of is due to the fact that even decades after they aired, it is nearly impossible to find any service or DVD that is showing certain series — it was only fairly recently that all of St. Elsewhere became available to stream on Hulu, and a lot of other shows from the past — Murphy Brown, The Practice, and one of my personal favorites, Chicago Hope — aren’t available on DVD or streaming anywhere. I’ve argued that there is a great loss that some of these series are unavailable, and I can’t understand why they never got rereleased.
But even if they were available, I’d admit that there’s a part of me that clings to this old outdated format. For one thing, there’s the preciseness of it. Even after thirty years of advancement in technology, if you think you’ve missed something on a DVD, it can be a bitch and a half to try and go back to play it again. And until they manage to come up with some kind of remote for streaming, it’s still a huge pain to try and go back if you miss something on Netflix or Amazon. Yes, the iPod and your phone may be able to handle it, but it’s still never responded with the accuracy of a VCR. (I freely admit I haven’t watched enough TV online to state this with certainty but this has been my overall experience.)
I will also confess to a quirk that may come to fewer and fewer of us. One of the great virtues of recording of TV in the first place — particularly off broadcast networks — was that one could fast-forward through the cursed commercials and station identifications. It was something I did constantly through most of my life as a television viewer. A lot of the time I would hold on to the tapes even after the show went to DVD. (I still feel that the only way to watch 24 is with the commercial. Otherwise, it’s just 16.4 at best.)
Now, for reasons which escape even me, I find myself every so often pausing and watching some of those same commercials I was so eager to get through, particularly for tapes that are more than a decade old. They now seem relics of a simpler time — seeing ads for movies that proved to be inspirational (I saw one for Friday Night Lights) not that long ago and for politicians I’d never heard of. Perhaps the most remarkable are ads for certain TV programs. When watching of my recent Lost episodes, it was recording so early that ABC was just speculating that Desperate Housewives would become the next great hit for ABC (they were right) and advocating for TGIF — something that wouldn’t last much longer I’ll admit to doing it for some old movies I recorded decades ago. Somewhere in our personal archives is a recording of a rebroadcast of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. Among all its other virtues, you can find on it an ad for a series that was going to premiere soon: Quantum Leap.
And let’s face some of us will need VHS for awhile. Until the people behind Jeopardy decide to breakdown and actually live stream a larger number of the episodes, we’re never going to see some of the great games and tournaments of the series. (That’s actually a topic for another time.)
So yes, the footage is messy and it’s nearly impossible to find tapes, let alone anything resembling a VCR. But until the last model breaks down, you’ll find me watching old recordings of Twin Peaks from Bravo in 2003 every few months. By the way, do any of readers have old recordings of Lost?