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VHS Television Treasure Hunt

By: onipar

VHS Television Treasure Hunt

By Anthony J. Rapino


            Like so many forms of obsolete media before it, VHS tapes have recently seen a resurgence in popularity, specifically among collectors and retro-junkies.  Some of the rarer tapes (specifically ones that house out-of-print movies) have even become collector’s items in their own right, fetching high dollar prices at auction.  Even cooler, nearly every yard sale, flea market, and rummage sale will have boxes upon boxes of VHS tapes for as low as 25 cents apiece! 

            But this article isn’t about the growing cult of VHS collectors.  It’s not even about the rare and sought-after tapes, featuring obscure and sometimes fantastic movies.  No, this article is about an even more specific obsession: scouring home-recorded VHS tapes for commercials and television programs from my childhood. 

            It all started with a little movie called The WNUF Halloween Special.  This gem of a film--directed by Chris LaMartina--was made to look like a real newscast/Halloween Special that someone taped on TV in the 80s.  It is filled with commercials, fast-forwarded segments, and all manner of Halloween goodness.  They even released the movie on VHS for authenticity.  I loved the movie, and I watch it every year, but it also acted as a catalyst of sorts. 

            Not long after my first viewing, I started noticing the vast array of home-recorded VHS tapes at yard sales.  You know the ones.  They have a white sticker on the end, usually with hand-scrolled titles.  The boxes are from Polaroid or Maxell, generic in their conception.  Yet even these mundane visages are enough to throw me back into a time of boxy CRT televisions and poor reception.  A time when there was no DVR, instant streaming, or internet.  If you wanted to see a television program, you either had to remember to watch, or set up your VCR to record.

            These are the tapes I now search for.  The ones that some long-ago child lovingly placed into the VCR so as not to miss a particular holiday special or cartoon.  Because these tapes hold our childhoods inside them, and wait to transport us back to a time when we’d sit on the floor with a bowl of cereal and become transfixed. 

            This is what I do now.  I sort through old VHS tapes at yard sales, looking for ones that indicate a certain era.  I try to avoid the kind with only movie titles on them.  In my experience, these usually only hold the movie, maybe recorded from HBO.  Those tapes won't have commercials or any of the ephemera I'm searching for.  But the ones that have dates written on them, or television show names, or the Holy Grail: Halloween Special!  Yes, these are the ones to buy.  These are the ones that will almost certainly hold precious commercials for Monster in my Pocket, Thundercats, Nintendo, Toys ‘r Us, and countless other nuggets of 80s gold. 

            The pragmatist in me says, “Hey dummy.  YouTube it!”  But the sentimentalist inside me says, “That’s cheating.”  This isn’t just about watching the commercials and TV shows.  It’s about the thrill of the hunt.  It’s about getting to watch it in a way that we did when we were kids. 

In short, it’s about nostalgia and feeling young again.  


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onipar Posted on Nov 11, 2021 at 11:46 PM

Well, this is THREE YEARS late, but thanks, Pannoni! I'll have to go find your YouTube channel. Hope you're still uploading!

pannoni1 Posted on Nov 20, 2018 at 07:47 PM

Hello there, and if you don't recognize me, I run the pannoni series of YouTube channels, doing exactly as what you describe! It all started shortly after I got a VHS to DVD recorder for Christmas 2013, where I simply started with my family VHS recordings, of what I've transferred to DVD (though I need to do it again to the cloud drive, since DVDs are also going the way of VHS, though I still dub via that method before digitally transferring it). Of course, don't forget Betamax! First off, while they tend to be harder to find, they are far more likely to uncover that 80's (and even occasional late 70's) content on them! I recently uploaded a block from 1977 that came from a Beta recording that included most of an episode of The Bob Newhart Show, followed by the opening and first couple minutes of the short-lived CBS sitcom "We've Got Each Other". It came right off a K-30 Betamax tape that could only record 30 minutes in all. My oldest VHS find is an episode of Saturday Night Live from May of 1979, and includes a sketch on the recent Three Mile Island disaster, and also contains a lot of old local Baltimore commercials.

Also, in addition to checking the labels, checking the label styles and even the tapes themselves often provide a clue if they're older, or more likely to contain Y2K-era recordings, which typically are lighter in weight. But even if you see a label that just has movies on them, it doesn't rule out surprises! Sometimes, a tape may have just a single movie on it, but the recorder either forgets to press the stop button or doesn't record over the rest of the tape, leading to various surprises. I recently found a tape where after a movie, it then followed a taped over portion of Saturday Night's Main Event from January of 1990, a full episode of It's Showtime At The Apollo, and about half of On The Beam, an R

onipar Posted on Jul 22, 2017 at 11:37 AM

irrod, that was just a stock image from the net. I wish I had all of those! :-)

irrod Posted on Jan 20, 2017 at 09:19 PM

Do you want to sell your grocery bag of plastic toys?

onipar Posted on Sep 17, 2015 at 12:56 PM

Yeah you do! :-)

ozzyrulz777 Posted on Sep 16, 2015 at 10:51 PM

I have a lot of vhs of anything metal or hard rock I could record on tv. There is even some stuff that is not on youtube that I have. I need to watch them again soon.

onipar Posted on Sep 14, 2015 at 06:37 PM

Ha! Oh man, I won't lie. I almost want that to happen. :-p

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 14, 2015 at 02:25 PM

One day onipar is going to come across a weird film that, when watched, results in him being haunted by visions and eventually done in.

onipar Posted on Sep 14, 2015 at 12:12 PM

Vkimo, yeah, I figure it's always worth a glance. At the very least I might find some old horror for a quarter. :-)

vkimo Posted on Sep 13, 2015 at 05:18 PM

Wow, thanks for showing the WNUF Special, I will definitely watch that. I go to garage sales regularly and always skip the VHS tapes, but after reading this I will take a second look.

onipar Posted on Sep 11, 2015 at 11:08 AM

Ah, sweet! I really appreciate that!

mickyarber Posted on Sep 11, 2015 at 08:09 AM

I have boxes and boxes full of vhs that I recorded in the 80's and 90's. I'll look through them sometime soon and see what I have that you may be interested in.

onipar Posted on Sep 11, 2015 at 02:37 AM

AH, nice ones! I'd love to find some WWF stuff from back then. My main things I always look for are the holiday specials with commercials, especially Halloween stuff. I actually don't have any yet.

mickyarber Posted on Sep 10, 2015 at 09:50 PM

One of my favorite bits of retro programming I own, is a vhs of Superbowl 20 from January of '86. They recorded the pre-game, game, half-time, and all the commercials! I also have a small collection of home recordings of WWF Saturday Night's Main Event which also still feature all the commercials..Zzzv C

onipar Posted on Sep 10, 2015 at 02:49 PM

Ah, right on! Yeah, I actually just saw that forum thread on this very subject too. Very cool; I'll have to look into all of this.

Caps 2.0 Posted on Sep 10, 2015 at 02:26 PM

Actually, all my stuff is already on DVDs purchased from various sources. Vapor has it right. I convert them, and then edit them in Pinnacle.

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 10, 2015 at 02:45 AM

Actually I think it may be best to first convert the VHS tapes to DVDs, then rip them to your computer that way. I'm not sure how Caps does it, but my guess is that he first converts them, then edits them in Pinnacle (which I also use, for all video edits like the Specials).

onipar Posted on Sep 10, 2015 at 02:31 AM

Oh wow, there are websites dedicated to selling these kinds of tapes!? That's amazing, I had no idea! It's actually pretty hard to find "the good stuff" at yard sales, so I may have to check out these sites. Unfortunately, I don't have the ability to upload from vhs tapes, but if I ever find enough tapes, I may buy a program/machine to do so.

Caps 2.0 Posted on Sep 09, 2015 at 09:29 PM

Well, as Vapor alluded to, I do have a lot of experience with this. It all started back on RetroJunk, when I frequently came across cool commercials and trailers on YouTube that I thought belonged on RetroJunk. I didn't start giving credit to the original uploaders until 2008. In 2009, I got the Pinnacle video editing program, and so I started taking commercials from the DVDs I had purchased. Unfortunately, a lot of the recordings wouldn't move until I purchased the CloneDVD program.

As for why I enjoy vintage broadcasts, and the commercials contained therein, it's because I did a lot of recording on VHS tapes well into my 20s. I ended up taping over a lot of the stuff I recorded in the 1980s, including a lot of amazing Disney specials that I regret recording over. I've since found a lot of them on websites that sell recordings with original commercials, and it's been fun.

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 09, 2015 at 08:46 PM

Yeah, that sucks. I have many VHS recordings from days past, most of them home movies but some recordings of things like Saturday Night Live, NBA games, and the like.

onipar Posted on Sep 09, 2015 at 07:21 PM

Ah, thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, all of those feelings, thoughts, and questions that come along with a viewing of an old recording is wonderful. I'm sad to say almost all of my personal recordings and home movies have long ago succumbed to mold. :-(

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 09, 2015 at 05:08 PM

I think this may be my favorite article of yours so far. You're so right. It's not about the shows or commercials themselves. Like you said, they can be watched at any point on YouTube (and in some cases, HERE!) But to find all those other little details... local ads, local station promos, etc. And then to watch them all just as they aired together, like for a moment your TV has stepped back in time and is showing you what was on at any given moment, somewhere in the US. Then you start to wonder what the person recording the tape was thinking or doing while watching these shows and such play out. What was the purpose? What shows were they hoping to capture the most? Where is that person now? There just so much wrapped up in the simple act of watching the old recordings of someone else.

I have a feeling Caps has extensive experience with this, as all of his video submissions seem to come from these types of recordings, local ads and all.

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