Voices were tense and rising. Standing on a snowy corner on a Wednesday afternoon, we were trying to get four people to agree to one plan for a Saturday night. He wanted to hear jazz; she suggested bluegrass or a movie, but they'd seen "Absence of Malice" and we'd done "Reds." She suggested theater, but then remembered the baby sitter had an 11 o'clock curfew. Should we commit our credit card number to a reservation in the hopes of changing sitters?
"Listen," I said. "Let's decide what to do on Saturday. If worse comes to worst, I'll get a movie, and we'll watch it on my VCR."
"We'll bring the popcorn," the other couple said.
TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD
There's a revolution starting out there, or rather in here, in the living, recreation, family, bed and other rooms where televisions lodge. It's called home video systems, but until a month ago I didn't know anything about it. Oh, I'd seen a VCR (video cassette recorder), one of those handy-dandy machines that hook up to your television and tape a TV program or show a movie on your screen. A friend confessed that she'd been liberated by the coming of her VCR: Instead of driving 12 noisy kids through the rain to the movies for a child's birthday party, she had the same 12 noisy kids over for "Black Stallion" and birthday cake in front of the VCR.
There were other glimmerings of change. Another friend found that his VCR resolved a long-standing conflict: He loved to ski on weekends, but he was also addicted to Masterpiece Theater. The two were mutually exclusive until he bought a Betamax and set his timer for 9 o'clock Sunday night.
It resolved conflicts of a different kind at another house. When basketball and "Fame" were on at the same time, father and daughter were at odds. Now they flip a coin -- one gets to watch, the other gets to tape.
Other parents say they sleep late in good conscience on Saturday mornings by providing the little minds in their charge with tapes of "Winnie the Pooh" or "Charlotte's Web."
I heard about Woody Allen Appreciation parties where the hosts showed "Bananas," "Annie Hall" and "Take the Money and Run." And "Blue Lagoon," I was told, is a local favorite for the home screen: "I'd never go to a theater to see it," a woman at a cocktail party explained, "but I love to show it at home. We laugh at it and throw things at the screen. You can't enjoy movies that way at a theater."
THE PAC-MAN COMETH
I could see that a VCR was a pleasant device to have hanging around the house, an easy way to entertain kids or friends at a party, or make sure you didn't miss an important television show. But who knew it was the cutting edge of a revolution, the biggest change in Leisureland since television, and a threat to our weekends as we know and practice them?
Last month I rented a VCR, one of the components of the home video system (the other is a TV set), to find out what all the excitement was about. After all, the industry hype is that home video systems will turn our quiet, reclusive living rooms into home entertainment centers. No more standing in line in the rain to watch the latest version of "Star Wars" or elbowing our way to a good seat at a Bullets game or rushing to make an 8 o'clock curtain for "The Pirates of Penzance." Between prepackaged programs (movies, concerts, aerobics) and the ability to tape network, cable and Home Box Ofice programming, we'll be able to do it all at home and at our convenience. We won't even have to go out to buy magazines: Playboy and Penthouse are experimenting with cassettes that would come to your home once a month complete with interviews with famous personalities and playgirls in less than static poses.
With the video camera that shoots home movies to show on a VCR, we won't even have to go out to have film developed. Video tape is instant gratification: shoot and show. If you don't like what you got, you go out and shoot again.
The kids won't even have to go out to play. Computerized games (Atari, Intellevision) are part of the home video system. "My kids told me to put their Monopoly set in the attic," one father reported. "They said they didn't need it if they had Space Invaders and Pac-Man."
In the four years since they came on the market, more than 3 million VCRs have been sold -- 1.3 million of them in 1981 -- and industry spokesmen predict 2 million in sales in 1982. But even with the technology for the revolution in place, there are still long lines at movie theaters, and fans still come to see the Bullets.
"People are gregarious creatures. They like to go out, so they don't stay home completely," says Jack Wayman, vice president in charge of consumer electronics for the Electronics Industries Association.
At least not yet. "It isn't the popcorn that gets people out to movies. It's the big screen," Wayman continues. "It's more engaging. We're moving toward wall-size television screens, for the home and when that happens more people will stay home."
In his heart, Wayman says, he believes that the revolution will go even deeper: "These products may replace the automobile in the hearts and pocketbooks of Americans. The car used to be the status symbol, and it no longer is. We think consumer electronics, including the VCR, have moved into that spot. Instead of boasting about a car, young married couples today are proud to say they have a video set."
LEARNING THE LINGO
Starting at the top, the complete works are called a home video system. One of the pillars of the system is your television set, and any old one will do. The other is the video cassette recorder or video disk player. The machines are called hardware.
Video cassette recorders can play movies on your television screen or tape a television show -- while you watch it, while you watch another show or while you're otherwise engaged. The taping capability is called timeshifting: You tape when the show runs, but watch it at the time of your choice. Timeshifting accounts for 70 percent of VCR use, industry surveys report.
More advanced VCRs have additional nifty capabilities, such as two-week (rather than 24-hour) timers for taping; search-and- scan, which lets you find the place you want on a five-hour tape; freeze-frame, which allows you to freeze the on-screen picture for closer study; slow motion, for your own instant replay; fast motion, for attempts at a Keystone Kops effect; and remote control for some or all of those functions. The average price for a VCR is $800; a basic set (24- hour timer) starts at around $500.
VCRs come in two incompatible formats: Beta and VHS. Tape for a Beta machine won't work on a VHS machine and vice versa. Other than that, there's little difference between the two systems. No one knows for sure which system is better, but VHS types are outselling Beta, 70 percent to 30 percent. A third format is coming on the market, called quarter-inch because it uses quarter-inch rather than Beta's and VHS' half-inch tape. The advantage with quarter- inch is its lighter weight when used with a video camera.
There are also video disc players, which hook into your TV set and let you show movies and other prepackaged programs, but have no capability for recording. Like the VCRs, there are two incompatible formats (CED and laser), with neither one proven better than the other. Why would you give up the recording capability of a VCR for the mere playing ability of a disc player? Price. Video disc players sell for $400 and up.
The material shown on a VCR or disc player is called software. Three years ago there were about a hundred titles -- movies, concerts -- available on tape or disc. Today it is 4,000 and still growing.
"Motion picture studios found a million dollars in their basements. They're turning their old films into video cassettes and discs and making new films available for home viewing." Wayman says. Rock stars are also getting into the video album business.
TO BUY OR RENT
It costs $65 or more to buy a programmed tape, $25 to buy a disc, but you don't have to worry about those prices: There's a lively rental market, and stores with such names as Video Unlimited, Video Connection, Video Station and Video Place are building libraries of software. If you join a store's video club, you get better prices on rentals and discounts on blank tape. At Video Unlimited in Georgetown, for instance, membership is $50; members can rent tapes for $2.95 overnight or $5.95 for three days. Non- members pay $5.95 overnight and $11.95 for three days. The average inventory at a small shop is 300 titles. At a bigger chain, such as Erol's, there are 700 titles in the rental catalogue. So far, Beta and VHS inventories are equal.
You can also rent a machine from a video shop for a night or a month. The overnight fee is $15 to $25. The monthly rate at Erol's, one of the few stores with long-term rental programs, is $150.
When home video systems first came onto the market, the action was in X-rated or "adult" entertainments. "Porno had 75 percent of the market, but now it's down to 40 percent. Clean-o is where the growth and interest is," Wayman reports.
What rents or sells well at one shop depends on where that shop is and who its clientele is. "We're located neat a residential area," says David Simone of Video Unlimited in upper Georgetown. "Most of our customers come in for one film for the kids and one for themselves. Disney films, 'Winnie the Pooh,' 'Old Yeller,' 'Superman' and 'Black Stallion' do very well here."
Nationally, the most popular rental cassettes during the first two months of 1982 were "Kramer vs. Kramer," " An American Werewolf in London," "Paternity," "The Four Seasons," " Clash of the Titans," "Superman," "Stir Crazy," " Nighthawks," "Breaker Morant" and "Mommie Dearest." What's up locally? "10," "Apocolypse Now," " Breaker Morant," " Blue Lagoon," "Endless Love," "Cheech and Chong," "Friday the Thirteenth" and "Superman." Horror movies are the most popular genre; musicals are in the least demand.
THE FUTURE IS IN THREE WEEKS
Will the VCR you use today be obsolete tomorrow? Is the technological revolution out of control?
"Retailers have been complaining that new features are coming too fast, that people need more time to digest some of these changes," Wayman reports. The technological breakthroughs are easing off, but that doesn't mean they've stopped. The feature of the near future is stereo sound. Other than that, predictions are for better design -- smaller, slimline, more esthetically pleasing machines.
IS IT LEGAL?
In 1976 Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions sued Sony, makers of Betamax, claiming infringement of copyright material via home taping. Last October, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court (in San Francisco) agreed with the studios. Does that mean you're breaking the law if you tape "Hill Street Blues"? Possibly in California, but it's not a crime that is likely to be prosecuted by your average U.S. attorney. The case will undoubtedly go to the Supreme Court, and Congress is also considering legislation to establish ground rules. Practically speaking, if you limit your taping to personal use, you won't bring the FBI to your door.
ME AND MY VCR
Do you have to be an electronics freak to love and handle a VCR? I rented one from Erol's to find out. I also wanted to see, sociologically, whether the revolution would make inroads at home.
Timing was fortuitious: I brought the machine and three movie cassettes home one hour before the first of three snowstorms hit. By the time our street was plowed we'd seen " Chinatown," " Goodbye Columbus" and "Elephant Man."
Timing was even more fortuitious the second week -- my daughter broke her foot. We nhelped her take the pain off sudden confinement with "The Competition," " The Great Santini" and "Tom Jones." Clearly, the VCR could be a very handy device.
Attaching the VCR to our television set had been easy. While I was studying the directions (one wire attaches to the antenna, another to the TV set), my 14-year-old son had it set up and working. It was just like setting up his Atari. The movie mode was simple to work -- just like slipping a tape into a tape deck and pressing the "play" button.
During our third week, we picked up a blank tape to tape off our television. The easy-to-follow, illustrated directions showed us how each switch should be flipped for the action we wanted. We taped a show while we watched it. Then we taped one show while we watched another. So far, so good and easy. We then set the timer for Channel 20's Saturday matinee of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and went about our business. We came back to blank tape. Back to the drawing board. Setting the timer is about as complicated as setting a digital clock -- in fact, it's just like it: You have to watch your a.m.s and p.m.s; we hadn't.
Will we be out on the ramparts of the revolution permanently? The movie- watching has been great fun and, during snowstorms or illness, awfully nice to have around. The VCR also changed our spending habits: Instead of taking our kids out to the movies on a Friday night, we took them out for dinner and came home to watch a movie. This was a great improvement -- we didn't have to rush to meet the movie theater's schedule. On the other hand, the rentals started to add up. As the weather cleared, we were anxious to be out and around people: A VCR can't capture the smell of hot dogs and beer at a ballgame, or the undercurrent of excitement at a live show.
Will we buy one? We're waiting to see how life is down on the farm now that we've seen Paree.