I grew up in an age where if you wanted to watch a film, you had two options. You either saw it at the cinema, or you waited for it to be shown on TV. As for television itself, you watched what was being broadcast at the time, and if you wanted to see it again you waited for a repeat, which meant you were completely screwed if, for example, you wanted to see Ben Elton’s Happy Families again.
Video recorders changed things to a degree; I remember that we got one quite embarrassingly late, in 1984 or thereabouts. I taped as many episodes of Spitting Image as I could fit on our meagre collection of videotapes and watched them over and over, freed from the tyranny of broadcasting schedules, and I’d be a regular at the video library up the road, often renting the same films over and over. Never bought them, though; it simply wasn’t an option at the time. If you wanted to own a film, you either taped them off the telly (hitting pause to edit out the adverts if necessary) or found a friend with a video recorder and made a copy, which I managed on a few occasions, although it was made tricky by the introduction of Macrovision copy protection. Some films had it, some didn’t. I think my love of Kubrick comes from the fact that Full Metal Jacket didn’t have it, and therefore got watched many, many times in my late teens.
On a trip to London around 1986 or so I was amazed to see that the big HMV store on Oxford Street sold videos. Films and TV shows available to buy, but not to me. The prices were horrifying; we’re talking £60-80 or so. The market simply didn’t exist; videos were something you rented, not something you bought. And then over the next couple of years things started to change and the market started to exist. Shops began to stock a small range of videos at sensible prices, something in the region of £10-15, much more amenable to my tiny disposable income. I could actually own Monty Python and the Holy Grail instead of renting it on a regular basis, and so I did.
Over the next ten years I amassed a fairly reasonable VHS collection, watching as the range got bigger and the prices came down, and my reach extended when I bought a TV and VCR capable of dealing with NTSC, meaning that whenever I went on a US trip I could stock up on stuff that you couldn’t get in the UK. I was finally able to retire my dreadful pirate copy of A Clockwork Orange. Throughout the 90s the video market continued to expand, broadcasters realised that they had an enormous archive of content to monetize, and I’d buy up all that classic TV that I hadn’t seen in years or plain hadn’t seen at all. Then in the late 90s I switched to DVD (multi-region, obviously) and bought a sizeable chunk of my VHS collection all over again on the new format. As you’ll have noted from a previous entry, I’m currently resisting the temptation to do it all over again with Blu-Ray.
A couple of years ago my dad noted that with all the Sunday papers bundling whatever free DVDs they could, films were becoming devalued. And I suppose they are; just a glance at the stuff you can get for £3.00 in HMV will tell you that. But that’s the market for you, supply and demand and all that. When it first occurred to me that you could buy and own a film, the market was tiny and the demand wasn’t there and so you had to pay through the nose. Now there’s so much choice that supply far outstrips demand and prices tumble. I keep not buying the entire series of Moonlighting because even at a discounted £50 that seems way too much to me. Back in the day that wouldn’t have got me four episodes of Blake’s 7 hacked together into a shitty feature-length abomination.
Right now I’m forcing myself to finish writing this before I can network my Freesat box so that it’ll run the iPlayer. Loads of BBC content, available for nothing bar the licence fee. And despite how cheap media is these days it seems sustainable, simply because the broad demand’s there for it. Even if a tiny fraction of a percentage of the viewing public buys a DVD or downloads a film off iTunes for a couple of quid, that still scales up to a lot of people and a decent amount of money.
My teenage self wouldn’t have believed it. The trouble with the future is that it creeps up on you, and by the time it’s arrived you’re already taking it for granted.