At last year’s OER19 conference the great Laura Ritchie brought me a suitcase full of VHS tapes. Within this there were the first five episodes of The Sopranos on tape that when lockdown started a couple of weeks ago I decided to start watching, which led me to buy the rest of season 1, season 2, and more recently season 3 on VHS from the UK which is on the way. Who does that in 2020? I could sense the surprise from the Ebay sellers, but you could do a lot worse than a VHS fetish.
As is often the case, the things that intrigue me beyond the actual series (which holds up brilliantly) are the advertisements before the episodes. Before season 2, episode 1 the above advertisement for DVDs came on, and really dated the series. Season 1 was aired in 1999 and season 2 in 2000 which corresponds with the popularization of that format, here is a bit from the DVD Player wikipedia article that is quite telling about how quickly this format became ubiquitous:
Players slowly trickled into other regions around the world. Prices for the first players in 1997 started at $600 and could top out at prices over $1000. By the end of 2000, players were available for under $100 at discount retailers. In 2003 players became available for under $50. Six years after the initial launch, close to one thousand models of DVD players were available from over a hundred consumer electronics manufacturers.
The explosion of DVDs meant the precipitous decline of the reigning video format king: the VHS. In fact, what struck me most about the advertisement for the DVD was it was on a VHS tape. I understand it makes total sense, given those watching The Sopranos on VHS are the perfect audience to sell a DVD player. That said, there was also a strange sense that the VHS tape was put in a situation to sacrifice itself, as a medium, for the conquest of the DVD. A passing of the baton if you will. I understand I’m anthropomorphizing a piece of dumb technology, but nonetheless The Sopranos marks a moment in technological time—recent history that is not only written on physicality of the format (i.e., VHS, DVD, or consumed “live” weekly via cable on HBO) but it is also written into the actual narrative of the show. Take, for example, episode 2 of season 1, “46 Long,” which is focused on an ill-advised hijacking of a truck carrying DVD players. In 1999 DVD players would still be a relatively high-ticket item, and most households were still weighing the costs. In fact, when Christopher comes into the Bada Bing! announcing, “Technology has finally come to the Bing!” they all go out to the parking lot where each of the crew members are given a player:
The conversation is awesome, Tony notes there aren’t as many titles as “Laser” (suggesting Tony has a laserdisc player and is a bit of a format snob). The Pauly jumps in and suggests the image is as good as laserdisc, and Brendan notes but the sound is the really difference. It’s like a commercial! But not to be seduced Tony comes back with the best line of the scene in response to Brendan’s appeal to audio fidelity as he grabs the DVD that seals his position as a film/format snob: “‘Cause nothing beats popping some Orville Redenbachers and listening to Men in Black, ya know.” So good, and at this point Chris is pissed and tries to take the DVD player away from Tony given he doesn’t seem to want it, but Tony will not let go, because he knows this is the format of the future. It’s an awesome scene, and not testifies to the brilliant writing and acting that made this series legend, but also the reflection on home entertainment formats and the changing nature of that industry is exactly what HBO was doing within the cable TV game. The Sopranos was the crowning achievement in making network television passé and cable a must, and that would soon be combined with cable becoming synonymous with an ISP—sealing and fueling the shift of cable as utility/infrastructure (the AOL/Time Warner merger being demonstrative of this fact), all of which would set the stage for the next wave of the web, and part of what I love about The Sopranos is they document this in-between moment for technology and the web in interesting ways.
I have a bunch of other clips to share, but archiving VHS tapes is painstaking work, so I’ll have to wait to share some more clips about DVD players, the internet, chat rooms, and much more. They even talk about compact discs in episode 1 of season 1 when Tony’s mom is introduced. He brings her a CD player in hopes she will break out of her funk, he notes “You love music and all the old stuff is being re-issued on CD…” After that he tries to dance with her, and thus begins the long, painful relationship in the series between Tony and his infanticidal mother.
I could go on forever about this, but I really do love these seemingly throw-away moments on a VHS tape before the main attraction, an advertisement for the new format know as DVD, to the moments in the actual show where the creators are reflecting on the changing landscape of media and how it is always met with equal parts confusion, excitement, and suspicion.