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|Written by Frederick Hidell|
|Sunday, 30 September 2007 19:00|
Has our music been castrated?To you it may sound goodTo me it sounds all wrongThe notes and chords sound similar The same forbidden beat, butThe desperation’s gone (the song’s the same)But the Desperations gone-NOFX
I was born in the late seventies. I cannot remember a time when my family did not own a VCR. That analogue machine was the astounding medium through which television connoisseurs of my generation interacted with our favourite shows. Sure, your average Joe didn’t need a VCR to watch his favourite series, all he needed was a television, but to those truly fanatic viewers that came of age in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, television wasn’t something you watched, it was something you taped.
The ability to watch an episode of your favourite television series was a luxury that was afforded only after it had been captured on video tape. You, The Taper, would have had to watch the show at a specific time, on a specific date, remote control in hand and VCR at the ready. It was weekly ritual, and one that was often rooted in desperation and fear.
The advent of television on DVD, TiVOs, PVRs and bittorrenting has put an end to that era of television interaction. When and how a television show is watched is no longer something that is dictated by the strict confines of time. Today, a missed episode of a favourite show can be easily downloaded the next day. Of course, if own on a PVR you’ll never have to worry about missing an episode every again, because each and every one will be digitally recorded and stored for later viewing, after a single programming. The Fear of missing an episode has completely evaporated. People can now wait for entire seasons to be released on DVD before watching a specific series. We watch television when we want to, how we want to, and entire seasons are as easily available as a visit to your local store or the touch of a button on the internet. In the nineties, though, if you wanted to have every episode of a series available for you to watch, well, it was going to take some work.
The X-Files near the end of its fifth season, in 1998, that meant you likely had thirty video tapes of that one show alone. Throw in Star Trek: The Next Generation at around that same time, and you were now looking at something more like seventy video tapes. If you were obsessive enough to tape each and every episode of The X-Files and ST:TNG, its likely you were also taping several other shows as well... so we can throw in some Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Gothic, and Millenium to boot. Maybe you also liked well written cop shows, so you had half a dozen seasons of Homicide taped. Maybe you also digged melodramas, and thus had season after season of Bevery Hills 90210, Party of Five, and Dawnson’s Creek taking up space as well. God help you if you were also taping The Simpons and those great early seasons of Survivor. We are talking about a collection of video tapes totalling in the hundreds, lining dozens of shelves, and growing larger every week; because you can be damn sure that if you have put in the effort to tape the first three seasons of a show, you’ll go on taping the rest, right to the bitter end. Taping every single episode of a television series was not an easy task, for it was a ritualistic endeavour not only rooted in time, but also in space. Video tapes were big, and even taping shows at the lowest quality setting still only allowed four or five episode per tape. That usually meant five or six tapes to a season. If you were a fan of, say,
It was impossible to hide the collection. It was very much a part of your house, and when people came to visit, they knew you were a Taper. These collections, ever spreading forth through the house like some sort of perverse geek manifest destiny brought with them a certain sense of pride for The Taper. It took serious work to capture that many episodes on video, and people knew it, and if they didn’t, at least The Taper did.
The organization, the filing, ordering and labelling was a meticulous detail that could not be over looked if the collection was to be lived with. Eight tapes labelled in blue ink could not be suddenly infringed upon by a label written in black. One had to be careful about these things.
My labelling technique was to use the font from the opening credits of a series on the front facing spine label. A part of the whole taping ritual was perfecting those fonts. A show like Harsh Realm, with its interlacing font title card, often proved quite the challenge, but if you were up for taping hundreds of hours of television, you were ready to face anything.
Tapers of multiple shows were presented with various logistical complications, the most pressing of which was what to do when two shows that needed to be taped aired at the same time, on the same night. Often a friend or a family member could be pressured into taping on one’s behalf, but non-tapers were never reliable enough to truly put ones faith in. (Indeed, many viewed that acting of taping with quite disdain.) Instead of relying on these nonbelievers, the purchase of a second, and possibly a third, VCR was the best option for the serious Taper. The little VCR boxes would be scattered about the house, all rolling simultaneously, producing a steady hum no matter what room you were in. You could walk through the halls of a home, and experience a beautiful opera of analog technology, whirling and spinning.
Along with the VCR itself, the remote control was of singular importance. In hopes of keeping the number of tapes to a minimum, you had to try to squeeze as many episodes to a cassette as possible. This meant, if at all possible, pausing the recording during commercial breaks. The interaction between the pause button on the converter and the response by the VCR itself was never instantaneous. Depending on the machine, it could take a full second or two before the recording was appropriately paused or resumed, following the pressing of the button. If you wanted to avoid awkward flashes of a commercial following an act break, or if you wanted to avoid missing the first line of dialogue delivered after the commercial break, you needed to develop a strong pausing technique. The human, the converter, and the machine needed to become one. You had to know your machine intimately, and you had to treat it right. There was always a lingering Fear, in the back of the minds of even the greatest Tapers, of what could happen during those commercial breaks. The Taper could become distracted, or misjudge which commercial was the last in the batch. The remote control battery could be on the fritz, thus forcing a frantic lunge across the room, in order to manually press the pause button on the machine itself. It was a Fear that The Taper lived with, and it was part of the ritual.
An unavoidable fact of life was that sometimes you would have to go out on the night one of your shows aired. Not only did this mean you were not going to be able to delete out the commercials, it also meant you were going to have to be one hundred percent reliant on the VCR timer recorder. VCR timer technology never was perfected to the point where The Fear was not a constant presence. There was just so many ways that it could go wrong. You'd set the timer, but you'd set it for the wrong day, or you'd set it for the right day, but your VCR’s general calendar would be set to the wrong day, or you would set it up properly, but you would forget to actually turn it on. I had one VCR where the timer would only work if the VCR was powered off! If someone else in the house decided to turn it on sometime between when I set it and when it was supposed to start recording... no episode! Power outages and other acts of God could, of course, wreak a particular kind of unavoidable havoc.
Due to the fact that some episodes had commercials deleted and others did not, you were never quite sure how many episodes were going to fit to any one tape, or even how much tape was actually left. By the late nineties I could visually gage the amount of time I had left on a tape by looking at how much tape was still gathered on the right hand spool, but even this was more of an art than a science, and my estimations could often prove horribly wrong. I always knew that I had misjudged the amount of space left on a timer reliant recording when I arrived home to see the tape ejected from the machine. While I was gone, the tape had reached the end, stopped recording, rewound to the beginning and ejected. It was a horrific sight to stumble in upon.
There were so many things that could go wrong on any given day that it felt like a true miracle when an episode was successfully taped; that you had conquered The Fear. Missing an episode meant months and months of patiently waiting and silently praying that that particular episode would appear in reruns at some point in the not too distant future, and that you would have a tape ready to go when it did.
There was a sense of desperation to the entire endeavour. It is a desperation that has vanished so completely that the ritual upon which it was founded no longer exists. Today an entire season of television on DVD takes up less than the space of two video tapes. The computer savvy download their episodes, needing no more space than a hard drive takes up to store their entire collection. We now watch TV shows how we want, when we want. There is no desperation, no fear, just the simple touch of a button. You can still watch those beloved shows from the nineties, but the viewing experience is now so different that it is no longer comparable. There are no collectors of television series anymore, only viewers and consumers. I had nine seasons of The X-Files available to watch at any time, not because I had the money to purchase a readily available DVD box set, but because I had put in the years of effort that it took to acquire such a collection on VHS. In the nineties, it was not a financial investment that provided television fans with a collection, it was an emotional investment.
While we bask in the glory of digital technology, purchasing entire seasons in box sets as easily as though they were apples in a grocery store, I can’t help but think back fondly on the days of desperation, where The Fear was battled and conquered weekly and the right to truly enjoy television was earned by the diligent, the faithful, and the slightly mad.
Art by Kirk DesRosier