Video Store Day: Correcting the Corrupted

November 1, 2014 | By



Although this post is tied to the recent Video Store Day, there’s no reason why bit of ephemera and home video history need to be isolated to a single day, especially since any fragment from the industry’s past could be spun off into several pieces – nostalgia, think, or a contrast about changing times.

Case in point: the ‘video stabilization box,’ designed to enhance the home video viewing experience.

Let’s jump back a bit. Prior to movies on videotape (or disc), film collectors could buy / rent / borrow Super 8 films – specifically, reduced versions of major feature films – and 16mm prints which, for years, were the only way to see films in the privacy of your own home, whenever and however you wanted.


No plastic – All metal, all heavy.

I’ve probably blathered about this so I’ll keep it brief, but in that pre-video era, my dad & I would head over to Fairview Library, where in the basement we’d sign out a great big canvas bag of 16mm movies that had been pre-booked for the weekend, alongside a 16mm Bell & Howell projector (which I knew how to operate because I was my class’ unofficial projectionist).

Certain ‘big’ movies – like a Hammer film – were only available in a reduced form; silents and some B-movies were complete, but other films could only be purchased in a crazy 20 min. reduction version because a whole print was either cost-prohibitive, or maybe (and this is personal conjecture) that’s all the studio would allow. Years later in high school, my film prof screened a diluted version of Psycho (1960), which resembled a movie cut & spliced together by a blind monkey.

It’s one of the reasons I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) many times because it was a new print bought by the Etobicoke library system, and IT WAS FREE, not to mention on actual film.

The desire to make films wasn’t in my mind at that time – just to watch as much as possible because movies were more intriguing than sports. That’s why after my dad bought a RCA VCR for a whopping $1700 (plus new RCA 14” colour TV for around $450), we checked out nearby Van Horne Plaza to see the new video shop.

One of the reasons I have these catalogues is they were lists of what to rent on future visits, and by examining them now, it’s easy to notice how one of the last rental shops to occupy that space, a venerable Video 99, was preceded by Video One, a Shop at Home Video Services, and Look n’ Listen, from which the latest catalogue (circa 1986) I’m posting here in extracts, although for now you can download a PDF version of the complete 8-page catalogue.



Page 1/8 from a Look ‘N’ Listen video rental catalogue, circa 1986.


Page 4/8 from a Look ‘N’ Listen video rental catalogue, circa 1986.


Page 8/8 from a Look ‘N’ Listen video rental catalogue, circa 1986.


The rental inventory was still a combination of VHS and Betamax titles, with a mix of genres of which many are probably long forgotten, having tumbled into home video oblivion.

The beauty of having a VCR was you could tape shows and movies off TV (we had cable since 1972, but Pay TV was still roughly a decade away), and I remember prices for a T-120 (2 hour tape) went over the years from $37 to $32, $29, $25, $19, $15,$12, $9, $7, $4, and $3 – which is pretty incredible to think people actually dropped $37 for a blank videotape, but then when CD-Rs were new to the market, I recall getting Kodak blanks for $14 a piece – and now blanks are less than 25 cents each.

Brands I used varied from initially RCA, then Panasonic, TDK, Fuji, JVC, Memorex, and RECO which were pretty good if I remember.



1985 Panasonic VHS tape brochure (front).


1985 Panasonic VHS tape brochure (inside).


When the RCA VCR died, it was replaced with a JVC ($1500), and a second VCR came into the picture a few years later (a mono unit).

Readers of Video magazine and its brethren knew that at the rear of each issue were ads for ‘videotape correctors’ – black boxes that were supposedly designed to fix vertical roll problems that copyguarded tapes could inflict on older TV sets, but in some cases, could also defeat Macrovision and enable renters to make a ‘reference copy’ for their archives.

(For the unfamiliar, copyguard refers to a piece of information placed within the vertical sync pulse of a recording, and when sent into another VCR equipped with a mandated chip, prevented a stable recording. Any attempts resulted in a picture that regularly darkened and brightened, and looked like gibberish, much like a scrambled Pay TV signal.)

This was a key point in the home video era where studios were rightly concerned that without any laws, the home user could dub a copyrighted work and subsequently sell copies for personal profit. Most of the time, these bootleg copies came not from homes, but video shops where an entrepreneurial owner may have offered copies for under $20 – all illegal, but who would tell if the friendly pop behind the mom & pop video rental shop counter would give you any movie in his inventory for a modest fee?

These black boxes  (if I recall) averaged around $50, which was not cheap; you had to be serious about needing ‘a corrector’ or that fee + shipping + currency exchange rates was an indulgence.

How did the makers of these boxes avoid the law? Well, by advertising their wares as “video stabilizers” (which in a sense, they were), but they would have ridiculous ad copy that read something like ‘Even though The Corrector II makes it possible to make perfect copies of rental tapes, this device is only to be used for video stabilization, and Company X is not responsible for unauthorized use of this device.’

It was pure bullshit, and it certainly teased the studios as well as makers of copyguard systems like Macrovision to stop the sale and manufacture of these boxes, if not shut down the companies. There were a lot of devices on the market during the 1980s, and the terminology in the ad copy, the manuals, and on the actual devices were rather cheeky.

Here’s a snapshot from a box made by Showtime Video Ventures auctioned on Ebay which reads “UNIVERSAL RENTAL TAPE VIDEO STABILIZER.”


Universal Rental Tape Video Stabilizer --- 01

A Showtime Video Ventures black box with idiot buttons to fix / unfix your picture. Rear connectors are standard RCA.


Sure, the copyguard on the rental tapes could fubar the picture – a problem that happened not long ago when Universal used a brutal form of copyguard on Inside Man (2006), which made the DVD unplayable on many machines, proving no technical problem is ever obsolete – but the only way to truly stabilize copyguard was to kill it.

I’m spotlighting the Showtime products because they were quite diverse – switcher boxes, colour correctors, mixers – and generally well-made, and the company seemed to remain in business for about 10 years, after which it folded, leaving their wares in people’s homes, then garages, then thrift sales, and often on Ebay, including the occasional new old stock.

Showtime’s other devices (their stabilizer was just one of many gizmos in a lengthy product roster) consisted of single-function boxes, multi-function hybrid boxes, and standalone oddities.

I’ll mention in brief two other Showtime products that were part of this mini-revolution in bringing some rudimentary ‘video correcting’ help:

– the Syncalizer (which also came with an optional RF converter) that prevented rolling picture but did not defeat copyguard.

– the Video Stabilizer, which according to a period article, stripped the vertical signal clean, and sent the video out with a new ‘stable’ sync signal. This device had both an auto  setting and a knob permitting manual adjustments.

Four classic Showtime products versatile in creating feedback: a colour processor to adjust signal components; an image enhancer to boost grain and video noise; a video amplifier to boost or reduce a signal; and a stabilizer to adjust a mangled signal before recording to tape or DVD.

The multi-function hybrid boxes were all-in one units that offered varying combinations of stabilization / colour / detail enhancement / RF conversion / dubbing / audio and video amplification. Rear plugs were often coax, but late models came with RCA plugs since the coax connectors were too chunky and required thicker coax cables.

Showtime’s thinking was to maintain quality – thicker cable, better signal, etc. – but if swapping cables happened regularly, you can imagine the headache of often screwing on / off cables instead of a simply pull / push RCA.

(I think the other reason Showtime pushed the coax connectors is they also made the cables – or at least sold them – forcing buyers to invest in adapters or cables.

Why Showtime  never used industry standard BNC is a mystery, since these bayonet mount connectors are monkey-proof.)

Certainly in 2014, these devices serve no purpose. They’re 30 years old and their resolution is locked at 640×480. Besides nostalgia, and being mementos of a bygone phase of the video era, there is no reason the average consumer would have any use for these devices. Outside of niche applications or private museums, they’re wholly obsolete. Even if one is dubbing old home movies to DVD or the hard drive, you’re probably better off with a time base corrector that’s designed to clean up dirty tape signals to ensure the digital recorder doesn’t glitch.

In the realm of video art or feedback, though, these boxes have some value, as I’ve used them to enhance the visuals in my recent Ceiri Torjussen and Nima Fakhrara podcasts. I’d also argue that if you have a library of home videos, these boxes still work as intended – tweaking the picture and providing rudimentary fixes in low / hot video levels, and poor colour. Another popular brand of the era includes Vidicraft, which similarly addressed the prosumer market with a diversity of products that were outfitted with RCA connectors.

Other gear included video mixers and character generators in models that offered singular push-button simplicity or several knobs for the prosumer market (which generally consisted of more sophisticated home video enthusiasts, industrial film producers, or wedding / event videographers).

Over at Big Head Amusements, I’ll have the occasional featurette on some specific gear, and regular blogs on any components used in the creation of podcast backgrounds. As for the next installment of Video Store Day, I’ll detail my entry into the wonderful world of Pay TV around 1986, via the Rogers Wonderbox, supported by select stills of promo materials.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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