chapter  1
26 Pages


When video cassette recorders (VCRs) 1 entered the public sphere in 1965 (Marshall 1979:109) the new technology formed a full circle with the already established medium of television. 2 It appropriated the representational practices not only of television but also of film and photography and of the cinema. The convergence of cybernetics, communication and aesthetics into the technological interface of what is often referred to as the ‘home-video terminal’ has turned the television screen into an all-purpose device. First, video games were played on it, then rented or pirated cassettes of feature films or time-shifted television programmes were watched. However, the cheapness and flexibility of the portable video camera (portapac, camcorder, etc.) allowed a broad crosssection of the public to produce their own programmes, This turned VCR from a reproductive technology into the first widespread postmodern communication medium. 3

The domestic use of the video cassette recorder signalled a shift in the control and power of the medium from the control rooms of television stations and the boardrooms of the television and movie corporations to the living rooms of audiences. The excitement that came with the ability to time-shift and record television programmes in absentia, as well as ‘bring the movie theatre home’ still lingers on, even if today with the help of the computer and modem we are able to create everything from simple video graphics to virtual realities. Today, VCRs have proliferated around the world, with the VHS format almost as widespread as the audio cassette (Nmungwun 1989:112-99; Secunda 1990). The earlier Betamax and video Phillips V-2000 technologies are still available, especially Betamax due to its use for portable video cameras, but it is VHS, which is (despite other technological advances such as videodisc and higher resolution formats), the most popular format with producers, distributors and users. 4 It is possible to send anyone a VHS cassette as a form of ‘video letter’, and for them to find a VCR to play it on. Multiformat VCRs are also increasingly available to enable NTSC, SECAM and PAL videos to be viewed. The international success of VCR is such that video cassettes (both programmed and blank) are distributed or sold in corner shops, pharmacies, libraries, and now even in vending machines, side by side with Coca Cola and condoms. Not only has the VCR made its presence felt in ‘The West’, but also in India, Thailand, Indonesia and in countries of what used to be Eastern Europe, as well as in many other Third World countries where video cassettes are available in almost any market place (Boyd, Lent and Straubhaar 1989). Just as VCRs can be seen in a small Dalmatian village (Croatia) without electricity, run off truck batteries, so too they can be seen in remote Central Australian Aboriginal communities. 5

However, most of the tapes distributed are of commercial cinema, mostly rented rather than purchased (Nmungwun 1989:166-79). Since the distribution of these video tapes is ultimately a commercial matter involving a hierarchy of producers, distributors and

consumers with a profit-making goal, early studies of video audiences were naturally concerned with issues related either to the video technology’s impact on related industries (ibid.: 199-243), issues of piracy or copyright laws, or its wider impact on television audiences (Levy and Gunter 1988). VCR is considered first and foremost (in its domestic use) a major innovation in home entertainment, whose rapid diffusion into the home media environment necessarily attracted a lot of attention from film and television industry oriented research (see, e.g. de Sola Pool 1984; Tydeman and Kelm 1986).