Was it ever possible to record cable TV shows with a VCR?
October 24, 2013 3:00 PM   Subscribe

I never had cable TV growing up, so I'm curious if cable TV subscribers back in the (70s? 80s? 90s?) were able to schedule VCR recordings just like OTA users? Was it as "simple" as plugging your VCR into a cable set top box and programming the channels into the VCR so you could schedule a recording for HBO shows (or whatever paid cable show you wanted)? Or were HBO shows blocked from recording on VCRs somehow? (I remember you couldn't record just anything on a VCR -- there were ways to prevent a VCR from copying movies to prevent copyright infringement.)

Ultimately, I'm wondering if the utility of the VCR has been destroyed over the years. Sure, we have DVRs, but VCRs still have a few advantages like 1) easily expandable storage space (you just buy more VHS tapes), 2) no monthly subscription fees (you actually own the VCR and all its capabilities), 3) portability to other VCRs (you can just take your tape to your friend's house if you wanted to watch it somewhere else), etc, etc...

Some of the digital successors to the VCR -- like PC software with a coax dongle -- have been able to replicate many of the features of a VCR, but now that more and more cable feeds are getting encrypted, are we losing out on being able to record shows without buying hardware/services from cable providers? Or has it always been this way: that no one has been able to time-shift HBO shows without paying a cable service provider?
posted by mhh5 to Technology (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
My family didn't get cable until 2000 and never had a cable box (because they were a thing of the past by then? because there was a single cable connection/subscription for the whole building?), but recording things on the VCR was exactly the same as before we had cable.
posted by hoyland at 3:04 PM on October 24, 2013


Yes - input cable to ch 3 or 4, set timer & cable box as needed. Later vcrs included cable direct in.
posted by tilde at 3:05 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


My family recorded hundreds of movies from cable onto VHS.
posted by jaguar at 3:05 PM on October 24, 2013


Oh, and I think DVR may have existed in 2000, but we didn't have one. (My mom still has cable where she lives now and no DVR. AFAIK, she could record something on the VCR if she were so inclined, but doesn't really watch TV. Having cable makes the internet cheaper.)
posted by hoyland at 3:05 PM on October 24, 2013


Best answer: You could indeed tape off cable, even from HBO. Often, though, the issue was that since the VCR didn't have its own tuner, and needed the cable box, and there was no communication between the devices, you would have to set the channel on the cable box and then the timer on the VCR. Mess either up, and you miss your show.

As an example, the VCR might take cable input only when set to channel 3, or "aux" or something. The cable box might have looked something like this. Yes, that's right I'm blowing your mind. So you'd set the VCR to tape 11:00 pm, but you'd have to set the switch on the cable box to say, Channel J (shout out NY kids). If you watched TV later and changed the channel, you'd have to set the cable box back to J so that the VCR would record the right program.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:06 PM on October 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yes, absolutely. Even better: Disney was a premium channel like HBO back in the day, and they'd run teaser weekends. My mom would tape them start to finish. We have VHS tapes at home with things like DISNEY CHANNEL SEPT 14th 1991 8AM-2PM scrawled on them. You could tape anything and watch it anywhere. I miss VCRs. TiVo can eat me.
posted by phunniemee at 3:09 PM on October 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


I was able to schedule and record cable channels until a few years ago when I replaced my ancient setup with newer equipment (which includes a dual VCR/DVD burner) and something in the new setup made it incredibly cumbersome or not worth pursuing due to quality loss...I vaguely recall my choices were either retaining HD signal or VCR recording but I couldn't do both so I abandoned VCR recording.
posted by jamaro at 3:10 PM on October 24, 2013


What the Admiral said. Although, it is worth noting that late in the 80s and early 90s, cable companies started messing with the signal so that the recorded quality was lower. It would display fine on the TV, but the VCR couldn't handle it - you'd get scan lines, static, etc.

My mom taped everything she watched - she had a whole wall of the living room dedicated to video tapes.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:11 PM on October 24, 2013


My family had cable starting around the late 80s and my dad used a VCR pretty much the same way people use DVRs now. Tape everything while doing something else and come back later to watch the tape and skip through the commercials. "Cable ready" TVs didn't even need cable boxes and could be connected by plugging the wire from the wall into the VCR and then another wire from the VCR to the TV.

(My dad still watches TV like this btw and refuses to switch to a DVR. It's just getting harder to replace VHS tapes as his wear out.)
posted by fishmasta at 3:14 PM on October 24, 2013


Seconding the Admiral-- the Tuner's the thing. VCRs were born with TV tuners for UHF/VHF (channels 1-63) but cable channels were too varied to be built into anything. You may recall that 10 years ago it was uncommon to find giant TVs with built-in tuners because they were relying on your cable box to be the tuner and saving cost in the process. The tuner is the critical element in the chain that decides what channel the VCR "sees" on its input.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:15 PM on October 24, 2013


Copy protection was not implemented on cable broadcasts. Need to dig up a cite, brb.
posted by tilde at 3:18 PM on October 24, 2013


Yes, my family has hundreds of taped TV shows still in our living room. It was always a fun game to see whether or not the first and last 5 minutes of a show were correctly recorded because sometimes the recording would start on time but the show wouldn't. Man
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:22 PM on October 24, 2013


The Admiral speaks the truth about recording, the box and of course, CHANNEL J! As a kid, Robin Byrd was an amazing concept.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:25 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


are we losing out on being able to record shows without buying hardware/services from cable providers? Paying a monthly fee for your cable box or the remote it is not a new thing. If your recording PC or whatever can handle output from your cable box, it should be able to record it. You can't go from wall to recording PC though, you need a tuner.

Or has it always been this way: that no one has been able to time-shift HBO shows without paying a cable service provider?
I am confused by this part of the question. In order to get HBO legally, you have to pay for it and that has always been the case. If your house gets it, you can record it on a VCR. You can also record it on a DVR - but you don't have to get the DVR from a cable company.
posted by soelo at 3:27 PM on October 24, 2013


Best answer: The deal was that you had to make a choice of where to put the VCR. If it was between the wall and the cable box, then you could record one channel while watching another, but you couldn't record scrambled channels. If the VCR was between the cable box and the TV, then you could record HBO, but you could only watch one channel at a time.
posted by rhizome at 3:33 PM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


tilde: "Copy protection was not implemented on cable broadcasts. Need to dig up a cite, brb."

Not true, some movies could have had Macrovision.
posted by wcfields at 3:48 PM on October 24, 2013


VCRs were born with TV tuners for UHF/VHF (channels 1-63)

Also worth noting: some VCRs had manual tuners which made it very difficult to select a particular channel on a whim. I remember I had one with a set of manual tuners (to program your favorite cable channels, or theoretically all of your local over-the-air channels). You would flip up a panel on top of the VCR and then fiddle with a tiny little wheel for each preset until you found your channel. The wheel didn't just flip through the defined channel numbers — it could tune through the entire frequency range. The time period when I had that particular VCR did not coincide with having a cable box like those linked above, but I imagine just tuning the VCR to channel 3 once would have been much easier.
posted by stopgap at 3:59 PM on October 24, 2013


Some people with two VCRs were also able to bootleg VHS tapes. One played to the TV while the other recorded. Then we traded the tapes in the mail. Home taping is killing copyright!!!!
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:52 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Like others, I have VHS tapes of stuff recorded 20+ years ago.
We usually just left the cable box on the channel we wanted to record, and set the VCR timer to record at a specific time.

Once, I learned how to program the cable box to change channels at a certain time.(RTFM FTW) I was starting to tape reruns of Laugh-In that way.... until my Dad went to record a track meet and got Laugh-In instead. He banned me from doing anything to the cable box but change the channel. :)
posted by luckynerd at 4:52 PM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Best answer: I also recorded cable TV shows with a VCR, only stopped when I upgraded to HDTV and my old VCR could no longer access the signal. It is not necessary to pay for TiVo or similar for-fee digital recording services, however. There are devices that can function as no frills HD/digital equivalents of VCR's, i.e. set your cable box to the channel you want (must leave box powered on, as with VCR's), and program your computer to record at the time you want and for how long you want. The result is an .mpg file on your computer (with the title you give it), which you can watch on either your computer, or on your TV if you connect your computer to it with an HDMI cable.
posted by RRgal at 8:07 PM on October 24, 2013


Time shifting premium channels here in Phoenix was an issue for sure. If you were present in front of the TV to start recording, it was a lot easier.
posted by cowmix at 8:56 PM on October 24, 2013


I had zero problems recording tons of HBO/Cinemax/etc. back in the '80s. I still vividly remember getting a tape of the Tyson/Douglas fight on a mislabeled VHS tape and trying to keep it concealed like I was gonna get caught and prosecuted. In 1990.

My dad worked in video, so we had several VHS/Betamax machines around to copy back and forth. At one point I had all but one of the Pertwee-Baker-Davison Doctor Who's on VHS, meticulously labeled on reused T-120s.

Ahhh, OCD can be charming when you're young.
posted by Sphinx at 9:19 PM on October 24, 2013


Best answer: I don't remember Macrovision being on TV broadcasts, only on pre-recorded cassettes like video store rentals.

There was a golden era of cable TV where every TV and VCR was cable-ready and all you had to do was know the channel numbers. As digital cable started creeping in, this ended.
posted by gjc at 11:53 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, wcfields, I stand corrected - but it was not in heavy use on broadcast cable (not ppv) in the VCR era. Plus I lived in a hacker den so defeating it was a trivial childhood skill.
posted by tilde at 3:45 AM on October 25, 2013


Best answer: There was VCR+ for this purpose -- automating recording when the VCR was connected to the cable box rather than using its internal tuner (programmable VCRs had timed recording functions. Thus the infamous flashing 12:00 when the owner hadn't set the time – but as mentioned upthread this wouldn't work with a scrambled channel -- that had to be recorded through the cable box.)

VCR+ ("VCR plus") was (and apparently still is) basically a universal remote that had an internal algorithm for turning published codes (often in the newspaper TV listings) into timed commands to change the channel on the cable box, and trigger the VCR. Some VCRs could be programmed directly with these codes (again, this wouldn't work for a scrambled channel). All you had to do was make sure you had a blank tape in the VCR. Oddly, this is all through Gemstar/Macrovision. Trivia page.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:22 AM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I came to talk about VCR+ too. I had a VCR that claimed to use it, but it NEVER worked!

I had to install all the VCRs for my family, and even then they didn't believe me that they could watch one channel on the TV and tape another show on another channel.

My sister had one of those OLD cable tuners, with the A/B switch. Get this, to tape a show she had to set her VCR to channel 3, then put her tuner on A or B (lower channels on A, higher channels on B) then set the channel. Her success rate for this was about 22%.

When I was in High School, we had to RIG our ginormous top loading VCR to record a show. We used an alarm clock for the timing device, so we had to do it for the same day. Also, cassettes were only good for 1 hour. We still won 3rd place in the original video contest.

DVRs are fucking magical!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:27 AM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Later, there were also the remote controls with built in functionality that was kind of neat. You could program to force your VCR to wake up, change channels, and record and the right time.

Picture programming one of those remote controls.

Picture setting the remote control down in the vicinity of the VCR.

Picture the VCR turning on and doing your bidding at the appointed time.

Now.

Picture doing this in a room with a hundred VCRs, many of the same brand ... and all of them turning on at the same time and all recording the same channel at the same time. We were a little surprised.

And then engineers did the same thing with the earliest wireless mice and keyboards .... LOL.
posted by tilde at 10:22 AM on October 25, 2013


Response by poster: Soelo,

Or has it always been this way: that no one has been able to time-shift HBO shows without paying a cable service provider?
I am confused by this part of the question. In order to get HBO legally, you have to pay for it and that has always been the case. If your house gets it, you can record it on a VCR. You can also record it on a DVR - but you don't have to get the DVR from a cable company.

I originally asked this question because 1) I didn't know if VCRs could record HBO, and 2) I thought Tivo was owned by Comcast (which I have looked up now, and I see I was wrong about that).

But there aren't a lot of 3rd party DVR manufacturers out there -- unlike the hundreds of VCR makers that have existed over the years....
posted by mhh5 at 2:51 PM on October 25, 2013


Response by poster: Thanks everyone for walking down memory lane of VCR technology with me. :)

I'm glad to know there was a "golden era" of cableTV when you could just plug in a TV and a VCR and have it all work. Digital TV has its advantages, but it also has some annoying features that analog TV didn't.
posted by mhh5 at 3:01 PM on October 25, 2013


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