vhs tapes binge culture fandom

How VHS Tapes Created a Proto-Binge Culture in Fandom

If there’s one recurring theme I’ve found when I’ve looked into the history of fandom, it’s that what we do now and what fans did back then can be similar in some surprising ways, and that new technology has always played a big role in facilitating the spread of fandom. While Netflix and other home streaming services have been touted as creating a “binge culture,” the reality is that watching entire seasons of a show in a day wasn’t the invention of the internet age.

First released in Japan in 1976, the VHS tape was developed as a recorded medium for home users to be able to keep and rewatch their favorite movies and TV shows. While the basic technology of VHS tapes had been in use since 1956, it was so expensive that these VTR tapes were only used in professional contexts. Development of the home version of the technology started in 1971, taking five whole years in part because the Japanese engineers weren’t willing to compromise on compatibility and quality. While VHS briefly competed with Sony’s Betamax tape format, the VHS won out when JVC decided to share the technology with other companies. JVC successfully established VHS as the home video standard in Japan, and that standard soon spread across the world.

A comparison of film types (graphic created by Vox). 35mm is standard movie theater film, and the quality of analog film is determined by its size, so you can literally see the difference in quality.

Prior to the development of home VHS tapes, the rewatchability of movies at home, and especially TV shows, was very low. The home market used Super 8 film, and the standardized cartridges had neither the picture quality nor the reel size to hold an entire movie or TV episode. (Super 8 was actually used to show in-flight movies on airplanes, but they used custom reels that weren’t available to the home market.) A few companies released Super 8 reels with select scenes from their movies, but a grainy compilation of Disney songs was about the best you could hope for. If you wanted to see a movie, you generally had to catch it in theaters, or, like your TV shows, consult TV Guide and make sure you were home in time for the TV broadcast.

Fandom had creative ways to deal with these limitations. Fans would write detailed summaries of episodes they had seen, which were distributed in some of the early fanzines–that way if you’d missed an episode, you’d at least know what happened. Some fans would take pictures of their television sets during episodes. A popular format for saving episodes was actually to hold up an audio tape recorder to the TV, since these were cheap and common during the 60s and 70s.

Doctor Who fandom was responsible for preserving episodes lost to the pre-VHS, broadcast-only TV era.

A sidebar: these early fans with their tape recorders have been instrumental to the Doctor Who fandom. Between 1967 and 1978, The BBC had a regular practice of taping over older episodes of their programming, in order to save on space and the expense of new tapes. After all, there simply wasn’t a concept that these would need to be saved for a future use–there were plenty of other Doctor Who episodes available to be used in reruns. 97 total episodes have wound up completely lost to time, with 26 storylines from the First and Second Doctors now incomplete. While all those episodes are lost, they have also been saved–because there are audio recordings of every single lost episode, as well as Telesnaps. The BBC has actually been able to use those very fan recordings to produce animated versions of the episodes, restoring a piece of TV history that would have otherwise been completely lost.

The cover of issue 5 of Changing Channels, a multifandom zine.

VHS tapes, however, brought high quality video into the homes of consumers–and into the living rooms of fandom. For the first time, you could collect and rewatch programs at will. The ability to record TV programs as they aired onto personal VHS tapes allowed fans to collect and share TV shows as they aired. Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins, a text studying the fandom phenomenon, was originally published in 1992, and outlines how fandom flourished in the VHS era. Fans were able to share their favorite shows with others. Fans could even introduce each other to promising new shows, helping to develop new fandoms. A fan culture of reciprocity developed–fans would willingly make copies of their tape collection for others. American fans were even able to ask fellow fans in the UK to make copies of BBC shows for them, which often took years to debut in America. International fans of anime were able to make a small foothold in the fandom market–although sometimes they’d have to watch the shows in the original Japanese, with only a fan-written description of the plot to help them understand what was happening. (As more sophisticated VHS technologies became available to the home market, fansubbing became more common.)

Jenkins writes,


“My wife and I watched the final season of Blake’s 7 in less than a week, sometimes viewing as many as three or four episodes in a row… When we finally reached the climactic episode, we watched it several times in succession…The Boston Beauty and the Beast club planned a summer weekend during which all of the series episodes would be shown in sequence; they called it a ‘Beastathon.'”

(Jenkins, 72)

Jenkins also details how fans found VHS so satisfying because they could track small details across episodes, doing a case study in how the early internet and VHS tapes allowed Twin Peaks fans to flourish.

From the perspective of a modern fan, what Jenkins describes is shockingly similar to modern binge culture. Fans could experience their favorite properties on demand, as often as they want, for as long as they want, with often fairly minor monetary barriers to access. The format increased the visibility of smaller, less commercially successful works (VHS also helped cult films spread like wildfire). Fans could create new fans by literally shoving a show into their hands, making the barrier for entry into fandom much lower.

Perhaps the only difference between these fans in the VHS era and our modern fandom is that this method of consumption seems to have mostly lain with fans–while other consumers taped and rewatched shows, the completionist nature needed to complete runs of shows, to seek out others to share copies with, and to organize viewing parties seemed to have been more in the realm of people willing to identify as members of fandom. Nowadays, Game of Thrones viewing parties are hosted by businesses, and binge watching is advertised as a benefit of streaming services enjoyed by all consumers. This is probably in part because the mainstream culture has become increasingly concerned with genre content–diving into types of media that already have predefined modes of obsessions. But it is also likely because the internet advent really does just remove those final barriers against the siren song of falling in love with good television content.

Even though fandom is by definition a non-standard way to enjoy media, there’s a surprising number of through-lines in how fans as a whole engage with content and use it. Despite the differences between VHS and streaming content, they created very similar shock waves in fan culture, increasing fandom overall by making access and obsession easier. It makes one wonder how the next big technological change will impact fandom.

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