While men of the year and women of the year are being named hither and thither, mostly thither, someone ought to give a nod to the Thing of the Year: the videocassette, which in the past 12 months has had a tremendous effect on American television viewing and American family life. There is no reason to suspect that its influence will stop growing at a stupendous rate.
We have gone from being a television nation to being a video nation. However, just when you thought it was safe to go into the video store and not be tempted by any new gadgetry comes the latest in amazements and video miniaturization: the 8-mm video format, which will probably bury VHS and Beta by the end of this century at the latest, at the end of the '80s at the earliest.
By 1955, you felt naked if you didn't own a TV set. By 1965, you felt a tad underdressed if you hadn't gone to color. In 1975, it began feeling a little nippy if you didn't have cable TV. And 1985 was the year you felt positively indecent unless you had a VCR.
In 1995, what will it take to feel electronically clothed? Probably a small satellite dish on the roof -- not the big kind in the back yard -- and 200 or 300 channels of video diversion, perhaps including wide-screen High Definition Television, big as a bay window. Maybe there will be compact video discs that will revolutionize home viewing yet again -- the way compact audio discs have already reordered the home hi-fi system.
In November, according to the Electronic Industries Association, VCRs sold in this country at the rate of 45,000 a day. When the holidays are factored in, well in excess of 11 million units will have been sold in 1985, up almost 4 million units from '84 sales figures.
The business in selling and renting cassettes of Hollywood movies has become so big some experts now project that home video will become the primary market for the new film product, with movie theaters secondary, instead of the other way around. In addition, original production for cassettes is getting serious, and the number of specialized and instructional videocassettes available for home use is skyrocketing -- everything from a vast array of fitness and exercise tapes to a just-released cassette that offers a 12-step self-help treatment for alcoholism.
Cable, on the other hand, has hit a stagnant period. Premium movie services like Home Box Office and Showtime are suffering from a lack of growth, although some of the basic services (those included with a basic cable package and advertiser-supported) are registering slight increases in ratings. VCRs enable viewers to do something not even cable allows, and that is to program their own personal television station in the home.
People are discovering they can program better than Brandon Tartikoff, at least when they have half a century of Hollywood productions to choose from.
Hardest hit by the video boom are cinema houses that play old classics. From the consumer point of view, why should anyone want to sit in a chilly movie house and see a ratty-tatty print of "Casablanca," with a sleeping drunk ensconced across the aisle, when a better print is available on tape for viewing in the home?
At least there, the sleeping drunk is your own Uncle Willy. Not some stranger!
Many people ask if the Beta format in VCRs, now manufactured only by Sony (though sometimes sold under other brand names), will soon become obsolete. Although Beta is cheaper to buy and produces a better picture, American firms and know-nothing appliance store salesmen conspired to push VHS machines to industry dominance, so that they dwarf Beta in sales by a 3-to-1 margin. Only this year, with the introduction of something called Q-VHS, has the VHS format been able to equal the picture quality Beta has had from the beginning. And Beta has already graduated to SuperBeta, which puts even more distance between the Beta picture and that of VHS.
Still, Beta owners are worried their systems will become obsolete. And they are right to worry. Beta will become obsolete. But probably no sooner than VHS. In fact, both are obsolete right now, right this minute, because Sony, Canon, Kodak and other manufacturers are now marketing 8-mm video, the format of the future. The future isn't even a wink away.
The best thing about the 8-mm format is that there is only one 8-mm format. If you buy one brand and a relative buys another, your tapes will be compatible; a worldwide standard on 8-mm has been reached. The other great thing, of course, is size. The cassette for an 8-mm machine is just barely bigger than a standard-sized audio cassette.
Anyone who got a VHS or Beta camcorder for Christmas is unfortunately the proud owner of a white elephant, an outdated video relic. Sony has introduced the world's smallest (so far) 8-mm home video camera that itself isn't bigger than a VHS cassette. This model is roughly the size of the Modern Library edition of "The Sun Also Rises." If there is one. VHS camcorders are heavy and cumbersome and a drag to lug around, and the Beta models are smaller but hardly pocket-sized; Sony's 8-mm camera is so small and light you hardly know you have it with you.
And it produces pictures as good as those made with half-inch systems.
Francis Coppola has been a Beta buff from the beginning, but in New York recently to help judge Sony's "Visions of U.S." amateur video competition, Coppola said he was converting to Video 8. Indeed, he said that where he used to dictate ideas into an audio tape recorder, he now uses an 8-mm video recorder for that sort of thing.
He has seen the future and it's on tape. Tape that's eight silly little millimeters wide. But because it's brand new, these 8-mm systems will set you back the better part of $2,000. Still, if you just bought an old-fashioned half-inch camcorder, you can slap yourself on the forehead and say, "Gee, I could have had a V-8!"
With the arrival of 8-mm video, for which feature-length movies are already becoming available (one of the first titles around, at least on the underground circuit, was "Debbie Does Dallas"), the turbulent home video front is turned on its head again. Soon there will hardly be enough hours in the day for playing with and trying out all these wonders from the East.
Not everyone sees this massive armament of the American living room as encouraging. Some have theorized that the American consumer risks becoming overentertained. Neil Postman has written a book called "Amusing Ourselves to Death." Maybe he has a point. But when you get one of these 8-mm babies in your hands, you can't help thinking, "Oh but Neil, what a way to go!"