The VHS to DVD transition and cost as a factor

I’ve been reading some comments about public libraries and VHS. Interesting all (including those from people who seem to think that DVD is a passing fad and the durable ol’ VHS is really what counts)–but there’s one odd subrefrain.

Namely, all those people who just can’t afford a DVD player, so it’s important that libraries keep VHS around.

To which I have to say…Huh?

I know we’re in tough times, I know lots of people have very little income…

I also know that DVD players start at $18. That’s for new players, not Goodwill specials.


What we’re using at home? $0. Safeway was giving away a couple hundred over a weekend to celebrate the remodeling of the local store. It sat in our garage until our old Sony player’s laser gave out (the first DVD player we ever had, so it was probably 8-9 years old). We hooked it up as a little joke until we purchased a Proper Player.

It’s been the better part of a year, maybe more, and we’re unlikely to replace it until we go big-screen. In some ways, it’s more advanced than the Sony was–and apparently good enough quality that, as we discovered on our recent cruise, Holland America purchased a few thousand to go with the flat-screen TVs in their cabins. (The current equivalent seems to sell for $30 or so, but an $18 Coby looks an awful lot like our CyberHome.)

What am I saying here? That DVD players are now such a commodity item that they’re really not much of a barrier for people who want to get movies and other videos for free from their libraries.

No, I’m not advocating dumping your VHS collections. That’s a local decision. I am saying that trying to maintain such collections–quite apart from being literally impossible for newer material–is really hard to justify. Heck, you could probably buy a fleet of cheap DVD players for what it would cost to try to replace videocassettes and just hand them out as needed (no, I’m not suggesting that you do that either).

Oh, by the way: If you do have patrons for whom $20 is a real hardship…well, they’re in trouble come next February. There’s a $20 difference between the typical price of a digital:analog converter and the $40 government coupon they can get (if they know enough to ask for it, if they have access to the internet, if, if…). Without that converter, they’re not going to have any TV next year. (Government decision. Different discussion.)

What’s that you say? They have cable, so they’re covered? Well…if they have cable, they can afford a DVD player.

8 Responses to “The VHS to DVD transition and cost as a factor”

  1. Jon Gorman says:

    Actually, it seems recently VHS players are more expensive than DVD. I only mention this because after having our old one finally die on use we decided to scout out for another. There are two reasons we finally decided to still get a VHS player. First, we still have some VHS laying around. (Yes, I really should have figured out some way to transfer these before the old one broke. Lesson learned.) Second, we’d still like a relatively hassle free way to get recordings.

    Yes, we could join the modern age and get tivo, pay extra to the cable company to get a settop that has dvr, or just buy a dvr unit. But those are all still more expensive than tape…for now.

    You know another possible problem? All the folks in a certain bracket who nephew configured their system twenty years ago. They had to replace the vhs fifteen, which luckily he was home for college to do. These new-fangled DVD players have scary connectors and apparently don’t just take cable. They’ll wait till someone else can come and setup their system for free ;).

    I’d be interested to see circulation of VHS vs DVD. Then check to see what happens when there is a copy in both VHS and DVD.

  2. walt says:

    It’s not at all surprising that VCRs are more expensive than DVD players now. They’re considerably more complex mechanically. Mostly, though, there isn’t much of a market, so there aren’t many competitors left, so… DVDs are pretty much at the peak of circuit integration and known-item manufacturing, helped along by the fact that the basic drive is so similar mechanically to a CD drive. One plausible alternative is a combo VCR/DVD unit but those aren’t dirt cheap either…

    Actually, most DVD players should include the same boring old cables as the VCR–but they have other options too. Still, I agree that setup can be a problem–nowhere near as much of a problem as these folks will have come 2/09, to get any TV at all.

    We still have our S-VHS VCR–and the “S” is a key letter there: It always did produce near-broadcast-quality recordings, so we’ll keep using it until (unless) a DVR makes sense. (I’m not really thrilled about having a hard disk running 24/7, sucking power all the time…) And when we got a replacement S-VHS VCR, it cost more than a Blu-ray player would today, even ignoring inflation.

    I’m neither advocating that libraries dump their videocassettes nor necessarily saying it’s ideal that VHS has essentially disappeared. The latter isn’t surprising: DVD wins not only on quality but also on cost and speed of production and on real ecological issues (e.g., comparing the materials required to make a DVD vs. a videocassette and the fuel required to ship one across the country).

    I’m just saying that it’s happened–and that, of several reasons libraries might want VHS to stick around, people’s inability to afford a DVD player is probably overstated as a factor.

    If a given item circulates more in VHS than in DVD, fine–but you’re not going to be able to replace the VHS in most cases.

  3. “probably buy a fleet of cheap DVD players …”

    Don’t buy them – recycle them. Almost every time I go over the local community recycling depot (to get rid of stuff that isn’t picked up curbside), I see DVD players and VHS players in their pile of electronics to be recycled. People just throw them away these days. It’s not even worth selling on E-bay.

    You could loan the DVD *and* a DVD player, and if the player doesn’t come back, it’s no problem.

  4. walt says:

    Seth, That’s a good point–except that some of those recycled DVD players are burnouts. While I recognized that our multidisc Sony was a mistake immediately (the pointless multidisc feature just slowed it down), we didn’t replace it until the laser started failing. (First everything shifts toward the blue…then nothing.)

    Still, if there is a recycling center and a staff member can afford the 10 minutes (or so) per player to check, and the library has the space…that might be plausible.

  5. Jon Gorman says:

    Heh, I wasn’t seriously arguing very much in the favor of VHS. It was more intended to be a humorous reflection. I do wish there was a bit of a better alternative to DVR/DVD recording, if only because of all the stupid broadcast protection. I don’t like the idea of not knowing ahead of time if I can or cannot record something. That day happens it’ll be even likelier we’ll stop using cable.

    Oh, and I do think there will be many annoyed people as cable companies switch, particularly in rural areas. You can do consumer education all you want, but the folks most likely to be affected are also probably the ones who don’t make regular trips to Best Buy. Wait till they realize the cable service they’ve had for years and the nest of cable wires they have stop working. I know the warnings we’ve gotten from our cable company look a lot like junk mail. (Oh, look, you’ll have to pay us more for a digital box. yay!).

  6. walt says:

    Ah, now, your second paragraph raises a HUGE issue–if only because it’s not one that the press has focused on. We’ve been told all along, “if you have cable, no need to do anything.” If that turns out not to be true, there will indeed be hell to pay. I don’t remember any warnings from Concast–er, Comcast. (Of course, if we find that, when we do go digital, we can get the broadcast nets on an indoor antenna, Comcast goes bye-bye in any case.)

  7. Jon Gorman says:

    Oh, just to clarify, the cable company is not doing the best job of representing the issue. I realize we really don’t need anything…or shouldn’t need anything. The cable service should be just fine.

    Not that I’d accuse them of doing it purposefully….I mean, they probably are just incompetent ;).

  8. walt says:

    (Twiddles thumbs innocently and chooses to say nothing about cable company competence…noting that he’s twiddling those thumbs in front of a computer connected via AT&T DSL, even though theoretically cable modem might be faster, if also more expensive…)