Life Before Streaming? Worse Than You Can Imagine.
As a budding, teen cinephile in the VHS era, I used to dream of unlimited, unfettered access to All The Movies. “All” is a big number, but in effect my dream has come true.
For those of you too young to remember life before streaming, or even DVRs, let me tell you how things worked. If you loved movies but were not old enough to take the subway alone to the Bleecker Street Cinema (now yet another Duane Reade drug store, sigh) or the Waverley (happily reborn as the IFC Center), your life may have looked something like this:
- Hope your parents were smart enough to have bought a VHS system and not Beta. Visit your local mom & pop video store once or twice a week in the hopes they’ve acquired something cool or classic you hadn’t seen—spoiler alert: they probably hadn’t—before Blockbuster moved into the neighborhood and ran them out of business. Don’t forget bring back your tapes on time and rewound, or be prepared to pay extra fees!
- Scour the weekly TV listings (which was a physical booklet that arrived bundled into your paper-and-ink Sunday newspaper) line by line to see if the local PBS station had anything interesting scheduled after hours (shout out to WNET’s Cinema 13) or if the local affiliates had anything cool programed in their weekdays at 4:30pm movie slot, like Planet of the Apes week.
- Then find a blank tape, set it to grainy, wobbly 6-hour mode, pop it in and program everything you wanted for the week through an arcane system of menus and repurposed button presses that only the most committed of humans would actually bother to learn.
- If you were lucky enough to have cable, it was even more complicated because the VCR couldn’t control the cable box, so you’d have to ALSO remember to manually change channels before each of your scheduled recording times.
- Then hope no disaster ruined all your hard work. Common problems ranged from a power outage resetting the VCR clock to a blinking 12:00 to someone accidentally ejecting the tape (dammit, dad! again?!), to news or sports pre-empting or delaying a broadcast so you’d get everything but the ending.
- Enjoy your film—sort of. You’ve used this tape 20 times before, so odds are it’s starting to wear out, with lossy images and tracking issues. Things are even worse if you recorded in EP (extended play) mode, dropping picture quality even further in order to extend your taping time from 2 to 6 hours.
This was a nightmare. DVRs made everything much better, TiVo especially with its advanced features (like automatically recording every program with a favorite actor or director). VOD saved you the trouble of managing recordings, and now streaming has increased the number and variety of titles available beyond even my wildest, thirteen-year-old dreams.
There’s a lot that is infuriating about life in 2018, but I try to stop from time to time to remember what things were like in ‘80s. I’m glad to live in a world where I can binge the Criterion Collection 24/7 on FilmStruck and a well-curated horror selection is only a click away on Shudder. While I’m relieved that my awkward teen years happened long before Instagram, it’s hard not to envy today’s high school cinephile, able to explore the films of Argento or Ozu without getting off the couch.
One small thing I do miss: VHS boxes had to work hard to catch your eye on store shelves, so like LPs in the days before CDs, MP3s and Spotify, extra work was put into making memorable art for less than memorable movies.