We may still be mad as hell, but soon we won't have to take it any more. One of the most noisily heralded luxury toys in consumer history promises to liberate TV viewers from the grip of commerical broadcasting and at the same time make the TV set even more the focal point for family recreation.
A new breed of home videocassette recorders, now being aggressively hawked for holiday buying by RCA, Sony and other major manufacturers, is going to give viewers an option they haven't had before. Now if you don't like what's on TV, you'll be able to roll your own.
Every household can have its own mad programmer.
Electronics retailers are already back-ordered in many areas on the new recorders, and RCA has predicted that hardware (the machines) and software (the cassettes) will grow into a "billion-dollar industry" within three years - and, a company spokesman says, it look color TV 10 years to reach that plateau.
At the moment, the main selling point for these little wonders is that they give viewers the power to rearrange the TV schedule as they like. Many models have built-in timers that permit recording of a TV program when the viewer isn't home. And most have built-in TV receivers (without the screen) so that you can watch one program and record one from another channel at the same time.
RCA is spending $4 million this year just to advertise its Selecta Vision with the slogan, "Now you can have the best of television. Whenever you want it."
And ads for the Zenith Video Cassette Recorder say, "Now you can make the TV schedule fit your schedule."
But the more intriguing possibilities lie beyond just rearranging the trifles and gewgaws now available on TV. A small Michigan electronics firm has gotten the jump on bigger companies ion the prerecorded videocassette market, with 50 films from the pre-1972 Twentieth Century-Fox library now available uncut and without interruption on videocassettes.
Andre Blay, president of Magnetic Video Corp., says business has already been "phenomenal," though he has no figures on initial sales by mail, and that he has received 500 applications for the tapes. He expects 1,000 TV-radio stores to be handling the tapes by the end of next year and is now negotiating with other movie companies for other titles to expand the catalog.
Already available are such Fox features as "The Sound of Music," "The French Connection" and "Patton," for around $50 each.
High-spending gadget groupies who hook a video recorder up to a big-screen Advent Video Beam TV set can thus have themselves a virtual movie theater right there in the venerable and increasingly crowded living room. Indeed, future homes will probably be designed with Media Rooms built in.
Beyond prerecorded material, there is another obvious source of programming - life itself.Once the cost of color cameras is brought within reasonable range (the cheapest is now a $1,500 JVC), viewer can become viewee, and TV will be the first truly egalitarian entertainment medium since cavepersons clapped for their own shadows.
In fact, JVC Industries is already advertising its Vidstar system with the proclamation that "now anyone can be a TV producer" (this may have always been true) and "a bigtime TV star." The ads feature Ted Baxter as uncurable ham Ed Knight, suggesting that the video recorder may soon be to egos what the shower massage has been to flesh.
And Toshiba America is introducing its new Toshiba Video Studio with a campaign pegged to the theme, "Goodbye, Home Movies; Hello, Home Tapies."
Gosh, it all sounds so wonderful. But there are a few hurdles on the road to Media Nirvana and total video immersion.
Costs for the machines are still high and they are being pitched as frills for funseekers, not as necessary appliances. Most sell for around $1,000, with RCA a little more, Sony quite a bit more. Blank cassettes cost about $20 each. Prices are expected to fall, however, once the industry gets rolling full steam and passes the fad phase its now in.
More of a nuisance is the fact that the various home-video systems are incompatible; an RCA cassette will not play on a Zenith machine and Zenith cassette will not play on a Quasar machine. But industry insiders expect the competition to boil down to the Sony and RCA systems, with smaller companies regrouping under one or the other.
The five currently available video recorder types do have one big thing in common: All were developed and are manufactured in Japan. The real battle is not so much between Zenith and RCA as between Sony and Matsushita, giant Japanese electronics rivals.
Sony got a head start by introducing its Betamax to America in 1975. In September, the machine was refined to permit two-hour, instead of just one-hour, recordings on a single cassette, and Sony will introduce a three-hour cassette in the spring. The Matsushita system being marketed here by RCA has a four-hour capability.
At present, however, there is disagreement even over what to call the machines - VTR's for videotape recorders, or VCR's, for vidoe cassetteo recorders.
This year, a Sony spokesman estimates the company will sell 30,000 Betamax units in the U.S. - as compared to the 650,000 Sony TV sets Americans are expected to buy - and sales should double next year. A color camer will emerge "in the near future," says the spokesman.
One other obstacle to the video recorder business is a lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles federal court against Sony's Betamax (and, by implication, all home recorders) by MCA, Inc., which owns Universal Studios, and Walt Disney Productions. The suit maintains that home-video recorders facilitate copyright infringement by enabling anyone to duplicate programs shown on television.
Since audio recorders and FM radios have existed side by side for years - with no apparent threat to the sales of LP records - the suit is privately poo-poo'd in the recorder industry, although, publicly, manufacturers are now including disclaimers with their recorders that say things like, "By the sale of this equipment we do not represent that copyrighted materials can be recorded."
Meanwhile, MCA plans to introduce its own home-entertainment gizmo to compete with the VTR, the long-delayed Video Disc, which can play back but not record. At any rate, the trial originally set for Jan. 10 has now been postponed until May 2.
Those bearish on the VTR craze see the obstacles as minimal and a revolution inevitable Magnetic Video's Blay says he estimates there are now 100,000 recorders in use and that the number will grow rapidly, as well demand for prerecorded material.
"Some people think we look dumb by entering this field so early," he says. "I don't think so. At least for the next six months, this industry is going to grow faster than any of the past projections said it would."
He also believes that the cost of cassettes will get cheap enough quickly enough to make tape piracy unprofitable for all but the biggest illegal duplicating operations, and those should be "big enough for us to spot." Tapes can be illegally duplicated much more easily than films, and a bustling black market is reportedly already in business. Hottest title so far: "Star Wars," at $500 a copy.
And what will it all mean?
It will all mean, eventually, that tranquilizing television will become a more participatory medium and that the days of sit-back-and-take-it may be numbered.
It will mean an increase in the already enormous American appetite for instant diversion, since expanded supply can lead to expanded demand. Movie companies and TV producers worried about the competition will probably find a way to capitalize on it.
For the Nielsen ratings that rule TV and help determine the price of advertising, the recorders are an imponderable new variable that could have far-reaching repercussions - heh, heh, heh.
And for any of the millions of people who have ever cursed the light at the end of the living room or swore they'd never sit through another ring-around-the-collar commercial, VTR's mean a hope-teasing new alternative to going to bed, throwing a shoe through the screen, or making the belated acquaintance of other members of the family.