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  • Writer's pictureWes Hazard

They Didn't Need To Be That Good

I watched a lot of TV as a child. We had cable with nearly all of the channels, beginning in the 5th grade I was allowed to go without a babysitter after school and during the summers, and I had no siblings in the house with me. As such, I spent countless hours floating through an endless sea of cartoons, 70s sitcoms, game shows, reruns, b movies, blockbusters, nature documentaries, music videos, wrestling, and infinity of commercials. It's hard to overstate how much all of that viewing shaped me, my idea of the world, my vocabulary/speech pattern, my references, my curiosity, everything.

Unlike today, there wasn't a whole lot of control with regard to your viewing. For the most part stuff came on when it came on and if you missed it during the broadcast you had to just sit and hope for a re-run. I remember grabbing the free 3rd rate "TV Guide" knockoff supplement from the newspaper every Sunday and mapping out what I really wanted to watch in the coming week or else going to the dedicated "guide" channel as it slowly scrolled through all of the programming for whatever 90 minute block I happened to in with a speed about half as slow as the school closings & delays listings on snow days. I have visceral memories from then of fantasizing about some mythical futuristic technology that would one day let you cue up any movie or TV show that you could think of and play it instantly. You want to watch Beverly Hills Cop II?? Boom. It's on. The debut episode of Stefan Urquelle on Family Matters?? Got it. No lie, I conceived of and hungered for this technology like someone else might want a teleportation pod or cold fusion. I thought it'd be the ultimate contentment.

Now, coming at you live from a time when some version of "On Demand" viewing is just how most of us normally watch movies & TV I can say that it's definitely convenient...but decidedly not a harbinger of paradise. Still, it's crazy how far we've come since back in the day when the closest thing we even had was....blank VHS tapes.

They seem semi-archaic now but as someone who doesn't remember a time when they weren't around it's important for me to keep in perspective how wild VHS technology must have been to my parents who grew up with a black and white TV with 3 channels...that shut off at like midnight. Instead of waiting for a theatrical re-release or being lucky enough to catch a network airing you could just buy or rent a movie you loved and watch it...whenever. (Or realistically, you could just wait until it came on TV and then tape it and have a slightly lower quality copy...with vintage commercials embedded into it...and your kid's 5th grade school play tacked onto the back 40 mins). It wasn't TIVO or Netflix but it was what we had and we appreciated it. I taped so much stuff and watched so many tapes and there was always static, and the sound was whack, and labels rarely matched, and I still have no idea what the "tracking" knob did but I adjusted it constantly and I'm so glad to have had the experience so that I can actually appreciate HBO Max.

And one constant that, in retrospect, absolutely did not have to be as elaborate or pleasant as it was was the art on the boxes of blank tapes. They were 95% totally unglamorous. We brought them like we buy soap or razors, that is to say in packs of 3 or 6 and often at Walgreen's. I'm sure some people had brand loyalty but we invariably went with what was on sale. They advertised space for 2, 4, or 6 (and later, 8) hrs of programming but that assumed that you actually knew how to work the features of the VCR that actually required reading the manual so it was usually 2. They came with stickers (labels) for the spine and the top of the cassette, in thin cardboard sleeve with a small indent taken out for your thumb and forefinger to grasp and they were, without exception, black. Pretty standard stuff.

Except for that box art though.

Using the one thing they had to distinguish their black plastic brick with white spools from all of the other iterations from all of the other brands that looked exactly the same the tape companies swung for the fences when it came to designing their packaging. Bold colors and funky geometric patterns were the standard of the day. (I'm not sure I ever saw an actual photograph or even true-to-life representational art on any of these...which was probably an attempt to invoke a futuristic cutting-edge vibe on what, at the time, was indeed cutting edge). Those boxes POPPED and it is so awesome to see that so many people appreciated these art/design efforts and that the images resonate just as much for them as they still do for me. This was like the most random and appreciated memory tour. I distinctly recall more than 90% of all of these and I probably watched media recorded on every single one of these brands. Enjoy the video above and this really cool appreciation thread on twitter where I first heard of it.

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