Thursday, December 20, 2018

VHS Time Capsule

VHS. The video medium that time forgot. Well, it's not exactly forgotten. I mean, if I were to bring up VHS in a conversation, people would know what I was talking about. So it's not completely forgotten but it sounds more dramatic saying "time forgot it" even though it's not exactly true. Know what, let's just start this blog over again, ok?

VHS. The video medium that time didn't quite forget because most people still remember it and some people may even have dusty VCRs in their attics or garages.

There. That's better.

Remember how friggin' fun VHS was? You could record programs off your television and make your own VHS tapes filled with your favorite shows, cartoons and MTV music videos, kind of like making a mix tape only with TV shows. Then you could put stickers on these tapes, label them in any way you wanted, with colorful hearts or menacing skulls. Then there were other stickers that had all sorts of boxes that said LP, SP, Mono, Stereo, and you would check all the boxes even though you had no idea what any of them meant. So much fun! 

If you were skilled enough, you could press pause during commercials and you would end up with a full two hours of your favorite shows, commercial-free. 

If you were even more skilled, you could program your VCR to start taping at certain hours of the day, when you were at school or when you were sleeping or when you had to do homework.

And, if you were the most skilled VCR operator in the world, you could program your VCR to tape shows that were on a different channel from the one you were currently watching. This meant you could watch Alf on NBC and tape You Can't Do That on Television on Nickelodeon. What a fantastic piece of technology!

It should be noted that I personally never graduated to the upper skill levels of VCR operation. I could pause during the commercials just fine, no problem there. But as far as programing the VCR to start taping at different times of the day or taping on a different channel from what I was watching? Never happened. I tried but I failed. It never worked. I mean, I was young during the VCR era so give me a friggin' break.

In fact, now that I look back on it, I don't think I was ever really successful in taping anything that required much skill. I was lucky to get an episode of Saved By the Bell on half-inch (half-inch is your in-the-know term for VHS tape). As far as a mix tape or, to use a more sophisticated term, a collection went? I don't think I ever successfully created a self-made VHS collection of shows, unless maybe one year when there was a Mr. Bean marathon on PBS but that doesn't really count since it was a marathon all on one channel. All I had to do was pop a tape in, press record and then I just didn't touch the freggen VCR for the next two hours.

My brother, however, was a much more skilled VCR operator than I was (he was five years older than me) and, exactly 30 years ago, in the special year of 1988, he created the ultimate VCR mix tape...collection...whatever you would like to call it. It was a Christmas-special collection featuring all the best XMAS specials you could possibly find on television. Each special was from a different channel, at different times, on different other words, the creation of this tape wasn't a simple matter of just popping a tape into the deck and pressing record. This required skill and he possessed this skill.

Actual VHS from 1988

The VHS had all the XMAS-special greats. We're talking The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. We're talking Frosty the Snowman. How about a little Mickey's Christmas Carol? Yep. It was on there. Or how about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Of course that was there. But you're probably saying right now that there's no way A Very Brady Christmas was on there, right? Wrong. It was. The two-hour 1988 Brady Bunch reunion special was there in all its glory. 

The VHS even had the most classic of all classic XMAS specials. Obviously I'm referring to none other than A Merry Mirthworm Christmas.

Wait, what?

Yes, A Merry Mirthworm Christmas. It's a little known XMAS special about a clumsy Earthworm named Burt who has just moved to the town of Wormingham and he's having difficulty making friends. He tries to make friends at the Town Hall where he helps decorate for the upcoming Wormingham Christmas party but he knocks over a table of ornaments and everything's broken. The town chairworm Wormaline Wiggler tells him to leave and get lost. Burt's heart is broken because he has no friends but (spoiler alert) he's eventually invited back in time for the party and all is well for Burt. Merry Christmas.

No? Not ringing a bell? Well, you're missing out if you haven't seen that one.

The full Merry Mirthworm Christmas Special

Now, you would think my brother would've cut the commercials on this XMAS-special VHS tape since he was so skilled in the ways of the VCR. Nope. The commercials were left in, clearly because he knew that this tape wouldn't just be a collection of XMAS-specials but would actually function as a time capsule, capturing the late-1980s in its rawest form. What foresight.

To heck with history books. The best way to study a certain time period is by watching a TV-recorded VHS tape from the year you want to study. The recorded shows and cartoons and music videos say a lot about the era but it's the COMMERCIAL BREAKS that say the most about the time. The COMMERCIALS capture reality in its purest form. 

So Christmas 1988. What was happening?

Well, McDonalds still used Ronald McDonald as its commercial mascot (he's rarely used today because focus groups determined that McDonalds' key demographic had "coulrophobia", a fear of clowns). McDonalds also had a licensing deal with Disney for its new movie Oliver and Company.

Cheese had a commercial all its own. No specific brand. Just cheese. Paid for by the American dairy farmers. It was part of the "Don't forget the cheese" campaign.

A new hot TV show called TV101 was all the buzz. This show had several recognizable faces, including a young Matt LeBlanc (Joey from Friends).

Campbell's soup was heavily marketed to children.

The Swedish Chef had a new cereal called "Croonchy Stars".

The Halls of Medicine was the best place to go to cure your pesky cough.

The only cool way to brush your teeth was by using new Colgate Junior Superstar Toothpaste.

"Northwest Airlines" was the first commercial airline to prohibit smoking on all flights. Also, Northwest Airlines existed.

Pizza Hut was a favorite restaurant for kids and had a licensing deal with Universal Pictures for their new hot animated movie Land Before Time.

Huggies diapers kept your babies the driest.

Dinosaurs were big in the late-80s and Playskool dinosaurs were what all the kids wanted.

Playskool was cool if you were, like, a Toddler, but all the older kids wanted toys made by Tyco. Like these Radio control Turbo Trucks.

Lego's new mascot Zak the Lego Maniac gave the Lego brand more of a badass edge.

The new "Footnotes" toy capitalized on the success of Big, the hit movie of the previous summer.

Kids liked their pizza pie; they also liked their macaroni. But what they really wanted was their first Sony...Walkman and stereo, that is.

Dino-Riders was both a hit animated TV series AND a hit toy brand. By the way, these were the days when the toy commercials took place on the sickest-looking sets (i.e. miniature jungle or desert models etc.) that were definitely NOT included with the toys.

The New England Telephone company made it easy to call Dad on a landline, even if he didn't approve of your boyfriend Jeff.

Thanks to New England Telephone, you could also call a 900 number and get your horoscope read to you by self-proclaimed psychic Jeane Dixon. All it cost was 95 cents a minute.

Pat Petersen (best known from Knot's Landing) was doing anti-drinking PSA's for CBS. Be smart. Don't start.

There was still much confusion surrounding the relatively new Aids virus.

Sprite was the favorite soda of snowmen.

And the "Win by a Nose" board game was released but apparently not very popular because it's practically erased from existence. No commercial for it can be found on YouTube. Sorry.

RIP Win by a Nose Game

Of course, I could go on and on but I think you get a pretty good idea of what was happening in 1988 by now.

Unfortunately, with the VHS medium now obsolete, we will never have accurate time capsules ever again unless we make the conscious effort to make time capsules but nobody ever does and, even if they do, they won't be as accurate. Self-made VHS tapes were unintentional time capsules and were, thus, a much more accurate record of a time period than an intentional time capsule where people carefully pick and choose what they include, therefore manipulating the history of the time in a way that they desire. 

Who knew that Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) would become the ultimate recorders of history? DVDs can't do this kind of thing. Nor can Blu-rays. Or DVRs on our cable boxes. YouTube is nice to look up random commercials and all sorts of nonsense but there is no context to what you're looking at. It's just a big, cluttered virtual dimension filled with every video from every time period, all at once. What a mess. 

With a VHS tape, you literally captured a moment in time and froze it forever...or at least until the tape withered away into snow. This is why I propose that a movement should be started to keep the VHS medium alive. Once we respect the fact that it serves as the ultimate time capsule, we will understand that it's imperative for the medium to live on forever.

As for me, I don't plan on making much of an effort to start this "VHS awareness" movement. But I think somebody else should get on this immediately.


MATT BURNS is the author of several eBooks on Amazon, including such nostalgic greats as I USED TO BE A GAMER: THE 8-BIT NINTENDO YEARS and I DREAM OF DREAM MACHINE. Also, his new "screen novel" WEIRD MONSTER is a fun love letter to the 1980s VHS era. Find more of his books at his Amazon Author Page:

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