Sunday, November 20, 2011

Electronically Dependent

Remember the good old days of the VCR?

I was an early adopter: I bought my first VCR in late 1977, just a few months after Mom and Dad bought theirs. I still remember the incredible expense--over $1000 for a machine that could record a maximum of four hours per tape, on VHS tapes that cost $22 per tape if Dad and I ordered them twelve at a time from the Tape Warehouse in California.

But there was one good thing about the VCR: when you made a copy of a show, it was yours. It wasn't equipment-dependent; it could be taken with you from room to room, from one place to another, loaned to friends, and archived. There was no limit to storage capacity, other than the cost of more videotapes.

Sure, the quality was a mediocre 240 lines of resolution, but it seemed okay a the time--and I'm convinced that, if manufacturers had pursued digital VCRs for HD recording with the same tenacity they used to develop the original VCRs, we'd be recording high-def tapes today.

Somehow, though, the programming providers and equipment manufacturers decided that it was undesirable for consumers to have a way of archiving and saving programs on their own. In the late 90s or early 2000's, they began to push the DVR--whether it was a Tivo or a Replay TV or a DirecTV receiver or a Comcast box, it shared the same limitations: it could only save a program to its hard drive, it could not be archived or transferred, and if the equipment failed, the programming was lost.

Over the past decade, we've dealt with hard drive failure on more than a half-dozen DVRs from various manufacturers and providers, and in every case I found myself longing for the simpler days of VCRs, when I could have simply watched my archived programming on other equipment.

I'm aware that there are ways to record programming on a computer, and in fact I use EyeTV and a USB HD tuner to do just that using unscrambled QAM broadcasts (and one Hauppauge box hooked up a cable tuner). But I'm also aware that most consumers have no idea that a computer can record programming and save it in an archival format, and I'm also aware that the entire system is more complex, arcane, and less user-friendly than the simple VCR.

It's a shame. I still have perfectly viewable VHS tapes recorded in the late 1970s--favorite episodes, clips, highlights from talk shows, musical performances, comedy skits, etc. I think far fewer people today have such personal favorites compilations, because it's difficult-to-near-impossible for the average television viewer to save the programming.

I know that a significant percentage of all televised programming is eventually made available on DVD or through various streaming services--but there's a lot of niche programming that never makes the cut, simply because there isn't a sufficiently large audience to make it profitable.

Don't know whether to blame programmer greed, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, equipment manufacturers, the digital TV transition, or all of the above... but I think it's absurd that the technology to independently record, save, edit, and share programming is no longer available to consumers on a practical basis.

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