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THE VCR-ING OF AMERICA : Videocassettes Have Fast-Forwarded Into Our Lives

Early in December two sixth-grade classes from an elementary school in East Los Angeles came downtown to tour the Los Angeles Times and meet a live editor.

On an impulse I asked the youngsters how many of their families had videocassette players. A thicket of hands went up; it looked as if at least three-quarters of the students were saying they had VCRs at home.

Their parents did the movie renting, they said, but frequently following orders, or requests, from the kids. “Ghostbusters” seemed to have been at the top of the year’s hit parade, although one young man said that “Nightmare on Elm Street” had been seen at his house, and he shuddered pleasurably at the recollection.

Two classes as a sampling don’t necessarily prove a point, and there may simply be a wizard salesman of VCRs in that immediate neighborhood. Yet it is a fair guess that, on the long curve of history, 1986 will be identified as the year that the videocassette recorder ceased to be a novelty, or a luxury, and became a fact of American home life, right there with the television (or the televisions) and the handheld radios and fast outdistancing the ghetto-blasters, which have begun to look archaic.

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As the articles on the following pages demonstrate, there is much to be said about the state of the arts in 1986, triumphs and disappointments, hits and flops, new faces and new work by familiar hands.

For Los Angeles, the year will be landmarked in particular by the debut of the stunning Museum of Contemporary Art on Bunker Hill and the opening of the greatly expanded Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The launching of the splendid Orange County Performing Arts Center is an important cultural advance for both the county and Southern California as a whole.

From this distance, it is possible to predict that 1987 will be landmarked by what might be called the Post-Olympics Arts Festival coming in late summer as a second ingathering of world creative talents such as made the summer of 1984 memorable for art as well as sport.

Yet the penetration of the society by the VCR may well stand as the unique cultural aspect of 1986, more enduring than the cyclical renewal of works and events. It was, if you care to think of it that way, an assertion of free enterprise economics, in which volume, competition and manufacturing efficiency brought the retail price significantly below $300, hardly a third of what you expected to pay only a year or two ago.

(It is also significant, of course, that whatever the brand names, VCRs are virtually all made abroad, contributing to the balance of trade deficit and suggesting that the U.S. has exported the lessons of marketplace hustle all too well.)

The rise of the VCR has to be interpreted in part as a rising impatience with commercial television, and an increasing selectivity toward what it offers--this despite what the viewing statistics say.

It is clear from office and social conversations--and from shows of hands--that the television set may be in use a good deal, as always, but that it is more and more often showing videocassettes, including carefully picked and taped TV shows.

The implications for television appear clear already. As with movies in their post-television years, the gulf between the big hits and the big flops is ever more pronounced. Television’s new shows are more fragile than ever, subject to ruthless euthanasia. This is not entirely cheering news, since it always seems that the good die first, an impression that is strengthened because you don’t miss the dreck, which also dies fast.

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Commercial television, which has always been rigorously competitive within itself, has been competing with cable and must now compete with the VCR, a more elusive target.

The VCR is central to the principal aesthetic shoot-out of the year: the colorizing of old movies and old television programs. While laying color on black-and-white tapes is intended to add viewers on commercial channels, it is also seen as a boon to the cassette sale and rental markets. And while the noisy fuss has been about the desecration of a few black-and-white film classics, the hard commercial eye is on color as a kind of plasma to bring a long-dead product back to life.

Despite the logical assumption that the VCR must cut into moviegoing, this does not appear to be the case. Movie attendance has been essentially flat in recent years at around 20 million tickets a week, give or take. There has been no significant fall-off. In fact, hundreds of new screens are being added and there is a brisk trade in theater chains at very fat prices.

What is evidently happening is that the VCR is functioning not as an alternative to moviegoing but as a teaser for moviegoing, as a reminder that things look even better on the big screen.

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It is not just screen size, of course, it is the neutrality of the common darkness, the dream-room comfort (if you are lucky) of the cinema, detached from the worries and distractions of home life.

Cassettes have become an immense revenue source, not only for the major studios but for smaller distributors and independent producers. The major studios still seem locked into their crushing overheads and swollen budgets, gambling on a maxihit each time.

It does not preclude the possibility of daring and originality, even at those prices. Yet more often the real vitality in the medium turns out to originate off-Hollywood, so to speak, with projects that arise independently, even if they sometimes end up with a major distributor.

There are signs that the message of cost (or of over-cost) is getting through. The arrival at Columbia Pictures of David Puttnam, a firm and proven believer in cost-efficiency, may turn out to have been a very important film milestone in 1986.

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What is inescapably true is that the VCR has stirred up the cultural mix in the society as nothing since the television set itself, with ramifications yet to be fully experienced. The disseminating of information--information in the largest sense, as embracing everything from pornography to colorized Abbott & Costello reruns--appears to have no end.

We can look back to 1986 as the year we took the machine for granted.


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