Never mind a car in every garage and a chicken in every microwave. Where in these United States is the couch-potato Utopia that has a videocassette recorder in virtually each and every home?

Incredibly, the answer is Flagstaff. That's what Arbitron, the national rating service that is one of the Bibles of the electronic-media industry, says. And the results were dutifully printed in a recent issue of Variety, the show-biz oracle.

An exhaustive New Times probe into this startling fact reveals that no one in Flagstaff believes it for a minute.

According to the latest quarterly Arbitron survey of VCR ownership in 207 television markets throughout the continental U.S., 99 percent of the households in that northern Arizona burg are equipped with VCRs.

Reno (95 percent) is second and Las Vegas (91 percent) is third. Phoenix, with 73 percent, falls a little below the national average of 76.6 percent. Last place goes to Greenwood-Greenville, Mississippi, with 63 percent penetration.

So, how did Flagstaff best every other city in the nation? "The people who live there must have bought more VCRs than anyone else," explains Nan Meyers, a spokeswoman for the New York-based rating-and-research company.

Ask a stupid question . . . Pressed for details, Meyers refuses to speculate on how Flagstaff managed to beat out cities like Las Vegas (with its 24-hour lifestyle) and frigid, remote Juneau, Alaska--places that not surprisingly have topped similar polls in the past. (Alaska and Hawaii, it turns out, were not counted in this particular survey.)

"Arbitron measures television viewing," says Meyers, and the company has absolutely no interest in the "why" behind the ratings. "There's nothing qualitative about this. It's strictly bean-counting in this case." Still, even Meyers did something of a double take (via the telephone lines) after realizing that Flagstaff's 99 percent figure represents a whopping increase of 16 percentage points over a similar survey conducted last July. "Wow," muttered Meyers. "Somebody must have had a sale or something."

If such a spectacular sale did take place, nobody in Flagstaff ever heard about it.

During a random sampling of the fifteen or so Flagstaff shops that sell or rent tapes and video equipment, New Times was unable to find a single vid-biz insider who even believed that Flagstaff is the nation's VCR capital.

"If anything, the market's probably declined a little in this area," contends Rick Allen, owner of America's Best Video. His theory on the 99 percent figure? "Sounds to me like they pulled it out of the air."

Jean Pittenger, manager of a two-store chain called Flagstaff Video & Rent-All, concedes that Flag might have a few more VCRs than the national average ("There's really not that much to do up here," she confesses). But Pittenger can't believe that her fellow residents are anywhere near as bored--or as rich--as the Arbitron study indicates.

"Flagstaff isn't much different than anyplace else," says the Movie Shack's Ed Hoffman, who is in a position to know. As the owner of a similar store in Tucson (where Arbitron pegs VCR penetration at just 76 percent), Hoffman notes only one major difference between Tucson and Flag. And that difference is seemingly at odds with Arbitron's findings.

"Down in Tucson," says Hoffman, "we hardly rent any tape players. Up here, we rent them like crazy. That's why I find this 99 percent penetration number a little hard to believe. People who own tape players do not need to go out and rent them."

One video-store employee says: "Good luck trying to find a player for rent here on a weekend night. If people in Flagstaff really do own as many VCRs as this survey claims we do, why is it impossible to find one for rent past 5 or 6 p.m. on a Saturday night?"

Of course, Flagstaff's leading VCR salesman might be able to clear up this mystery. But unfortunately, this charismatic video vendor probably doesn't exist.

Why not? When Flagstaffians want to buy high-ticket items like VCRs, they often head 100 miles down the freeway to the discount houses of Phoenix.

"You've got to remember that Flagstaff is a town with a very high cost of living but a very low wage," explains Jean Pittenger of Flagstaff Video & Rent-All. "There are a lot of young married couples up here who can't afford to buy a VCR, so they're renting tape players instead."

So much for salespeople. Maybe someone in academia knows the answer. "Flagstaff isn't that much different from anywhere else," opines Professor Norm Medoff, head of the broadcasting department at Northern Arizona University in Flag. "Sure, we have winters, but they're not that bad. People are out and about most days during the winter except during blizzards. There's no behavioral reason they'd be indoors more."

That cinches it. No one knows the answer.
But no matter how many people in Flagstaff really own VCRs, one thing is absolutely certain: 99 percent of them don't know how to set the clocks on their machines.

Arbitron's explanation? "The people who live there must have bought more VCRs than anyone else.