VHS: Stick a fork in it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The end of the longtime staple for educational media known as the VHS tape has arrived. What is Westminster College doing to respond?

Not much bigger than a paperback book, the VHS tape revolutionized the viewing habits of the populace, allowing them to time-shift their viewing calendars and enjoy functions like "slow-mo" and "freeze-frame" never before available to consumers. It transported previously out-of-reach documentary and film content into everyone's living rooms, spawning an entire home theater and rental store industry. It crushed its only competitor (Betamax tape) and still owns one advantage over today's digital offerings - it can be cued to a particular point in advance, inserted into a player, and boom - instant access to the right content. (Try that with a DVD, or worse, Blu-Ray!) Sadly though, the end of the VHS tape, a longtime staple for educational media, has arrived.

The college's media holdings currently contain close to 4,000 VHS titles that will soon be unplayable, due to two primary factors.

  1. The tape, which typically has a life span of 10 years in a highly controlled environment, is deteriorating and/or stretching to a point where the recorded information can no longer be read by a playback deck.
  2. With the success of digital formats and the Analog Sunset, manufacturers have ceased production of VHS playback decks. While some combination disc-and-tape units are still in production, stand-alone players are extinct, and those that remain are quite pricey. The last major Hollywood movie to be released on VHS was "A History of Violence" in 2006.
While AV Services has taken various steps to support this format as long as reasonably possible, we are reaching the end of that lifespan. We acquired a number of playback decks three years ago to provide parts and replacement options, but those reserves have evaporated. Current VHS tapes and decks will continue to be serviced until they collapse, (we will not be removing playback decks from existing installs, as some have been reporting,) however, new installations like in Patterson Hall will no longer include VHS playback decks or analog auxiliary connections.

We have attempted to replace some of the highest circulating VHS titles with DVD copies the last few years, but the problem is much broader than it appears. There is no budget to cover such replacement. Some titles are simply no longer available, have transferred rights that need secured, or are held up in court as licensing for archival footage in the original production has expired.

Why don't we just set up a dubbing station and start ripping the tapes to our own DVDs? Wholesale conversion of VHS content to either DVD or streaming files constitutes a violation of copyright with massive fines per infraction. US Copyright law permits the duplication of content only under certain circumstances, including that reasonable effort to locate an unused replacement at a fair price or a device that accommodates the format has proven unsuccessful.

Even when duplication rights are obtained, the copying process isn't great. The clarity of VHS (scanning lines) converted to DVD (pixels) is grim, and "chapter" and "scene" access links typically found on  commercially produced DVDs cannot legally be added, further hampering access to segments for class.

As a result, academic departments are being strongly encouraged to identify those VHS resources that they deem integral to their programs, and then proceed with one of these options:

  1. Arrange with us to repurchase this media in DVD or downloadable/online format. This will ensure the highest quality replacement of your media and ensure proper licensing and copyright compliance.  Orders can be placed here.

    Please note that the college currently does not own a media server system to provide on-demand access for downloadable media materials. This means that downloadable/online materials must currently be accessed from remote servers or recorded locally on transferable media. A number of media distribution companies currently offer digital downloads and/or streaming with a wide range of purchasing and subscription models. Not all of these companies offer licensing for classroom use or public performance. (For example, it is NOT LEGAL to use Netflix, Hulu, or Blockbuster streaming in the classroom.) Various restrictions apply and it is important to read the fine print.
  2. Find alternative titles with similar information. Our staff is happy to assist with title research, replacement, and special licensing if required. In most cases we can coordinate free or reduced price previews to aid in purchasing decisions.
  3. If the same or updated media is not available for purchase, our department may be able to transfer old VHS material to a different format. Care must be taken to ensure that this is acceptable and documented accurately under current licensing and copyright.

The Westminster College Media Library is a source of pride for the college, providing a wide array of centralized, appropriate media for faculty, administration, staff, and students as needed for the varied academic pursuits of the college community.
But its health depends on those that use it. We appreciate any input on improving our holdings, welcome donations, and our staff is ready to enthusiastically assist patrons as we bid adieu to VHS here at Westminster College.

Click image to enlarge.
Rest in peace, VHS. You have served education well.

A major Hollywood movie hasn't been released on VHS since 2006.