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Joseph Kaminski

History, Sociology, & More

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June 29, 2017

Betamax vs VHS: The Videotape Format War


I own a Betamax player, an SL-8600 to be exact, which was introduced to the market in 1979 with a hefty price tag of $1,150. I used to have it propped on top of a waist-high bookshelf filled with National Geographic magazines from a century ago, and I’m going to admit that I used it as an over-glorified digital clock. However, the wave of cancer-filled heat that came off of it forced me to move it to the garage – where it’s been sitting among educational CDs from the early 2000s and a box of old books labelled “Goodwill” that I haven’t gotten around to taking out of the house yet.

Betamax

Betamax Advertisement, 1979.

For those of you who don’t know, a Betamax – also commonly referred to as a Beta – was an analog videocassette magnetic tape recording format that was developed by Sony in the mid-to-late 1970s. First released in Japan on May 10th, 1975, the Betamax helped shape the stage of modern video recording. While the world was locked in the midst of a Cold War, the world of technology was in a war of its own – the videotape format war. Of course, as I’ve started this piece by explaining what on Earth a Betamax is – or was – it’s safe for you to assume what lost the war.

Lasting from the late 1970s and pursuing into the 1980s, the videotape format war influenced the modern world through intense capitalistic competition between the models of consumer-level analog videocassettes and cassette recorders. The two sides? The Betamax and the Video Home System, commonly referred to as the VHS.

It’s kind of amazing to think of this in a “historical” sense. But, it’s also how modern technology works. The VHS won this war, becoming the dominant home video format for a period of time, but ultimately it would become obsolete on its own terms. Eventually, optical disc formats would enter the market. While LaserDisc would never become widely adopted, the introduction of the DVD in 1997 spelled out the doom for the VHS market share. By 2008, the DVD had officially achieved mass appeal and finally replaced the VHS. And don’t even get me started on the Blu-ray HD-DVD nonsense.

But, we’re way before the creation of the modern day DVD – which is beginning to swiftly die on its own accord as well. With streaming services – both legal and illegal – cornering the market of movies and other entertainment formats, we could very well see the symbolic “death” of the DVD within the next decade or so. The cycle continues, with each generation of this format swiftly becoming obsolete before bowing out to the newest creation. If we were to count streaming as our current generation – even though DVD is still prominent it is important to realize the decline in sales and within the percentage of the market shares – then this video format war is at least four technological generations ago. Streaming, DVD, VHS, Betamax?

Of course, like the VHS after it, the Betamax is long-since been obsolete. But, it’s important to realize that the VHS most likely shouldn’t have won the videotape format war. The Betamax not only had better resolution when compared to its VHS counterpart, it produced lower static noise as well. That’s something huge in today’s modern world. Static white noise is a horrendous nuisance in podcasts, phone-calls, and recordings. The Betamax had a superior sound quality – albeit only by a small percentage – and produced a more stable image. The outdated Betamax recorders were also made significantly better!

Society turned to the VHS and not the Betamax because of three significant reasons. Cost, Marketing, and…well…we’ll talk about that third reason in a bit.

First, obviously, is cost. Although Sony’s Betamax came with a higher quality, it also came with a higher cost. Non-essential products which high-price tags hurt profit margins through lack of sales, even in today’s standards.

Think of consoles that sell today; many people – even within the gaming industry – refuse to purchase the latest equipment because of the realization that something bigger, better, and cheaper will come out the next year. Think of the Xbox 1, which is currently being “replaced” with the creation of the Xbox 1S – something significantly better and more optimized. People in the gaming industry are also having a difficult time finding pocket money for the latest craze: virtual reality headsets. The outrageous pricing behind machines such as the Oculus Rift or Vive act as a repellent to even the most intrigued entertainment enthusiasts. Better wait for a sale.

Now, imagine this significant statistic playing a role in the late-seventies and early-eighties. With America coming out of a rather shaky economic decade and the rest of the world still gripping onto the atmosphere around powerhouses, coming out with a non-essential product at a high cost would oftentimes defer sales.

Sony failed to understand that cheaper was better, and put too much of a price on a product that deserved such high prices. Now, is this a cost-analysis failure with Sony allocating too much towards a machine that would cost too much? Or is this more likely a failure to understand the benefits of cutting profits per sale in an attempt to sell in bulk? Regardless, it’s easy to see that even though the product is objectively better than its competitor – the price can affect sales.

Think of it like this: lots of “bargain brands” offer a similar yet downplayed product for a much lower price. When given a choice between Cheerios™ and Circle-Os™, sales can oftentimes split towards a non-branded product simply because of a difference in price. These “store brands” change the market game. The Betamax just wasn’t able to deal with it.

Secondly, marketing. JVC – the creators of the VHS – didn’t spend more money on advertising and campaigning, they just so happened to play a better hand at it than Sony could ever dream of. Sony was a first-party sort of licenser. The only company able to manufacture the Betamax for over ten years was Sony itself. This heavily limits the amount that the consumer can purchase.

VHS, on the other hand, focused on external licensing. Designed to license to any interested manufacturer, including major motion picture corporations and million dollar companies, the product-span of what could be watched on a VHS became nearly infinite. To add onto this, these manufacturers competed against each other – lowering the price of tapes for consumers.

Thus, what sounds more likely? Paying almost $1,200 for a device with limited tapes (less bang for your buck) or would you rather swing for a platform at a lower cost with infinite tapes? This is where pricing got a little confusing, honestly.

In 1980, less than 1% of all US households owned a videocassette recorder. However, by 1987, the number had skyrocketed towards 50%. By the end of the decade, over 90% of America had access to the VCR and the VHS tapes that came with it.

Betamax vs VHSThe third reason that the VHS tape and VCR player beat out the Betamax? Pornography. Yes, porn helped shape the world of technology. What an obviously not sarcastic shocker! Although pornographic “movies” have been around since the 1890s, the accessibility of pornography on VHS tapes is a major reason why JVC beat out Sony. It’s kind of funny, in a weird sense, but porn is what retroactively murdered the Betamax format, alongside pricing problems and licensing liabilities.

During the 1970s, while these two formats duked it out to decided which would reign supreme for the next decade-and-a-half, smut began working its way towards the core of society. While the better-quality yet higher-priced Betamax tapes held only one hour of footage, the VHS tape held around three hours each. Thus, people could watch more on the cheaper brand than on the better-quality brand. In order to get out of shady theatres and seedy clubs, the early modern “pornos” made their way to the VHS tape.

Sony ultimately decided against allowing these smutty movies to be recorded on their first-party formatted Betamax. By the 1970s, these erotic films accounted for well over half of all videotape sales in the United States. Which means? Every damn male on the block wanted to get their hands on a VCR player to play some VHS tapes. $800 compared to $1200 is a hell of a difference, as well.

Alas, the Betamax died. Despite the increasingly sharp decline in Betamax recorder sales that occurred in the late 1980s and the ensuing halt in production in 2002 – yes, 2002 is when the Betamax officially died off – there is a bit of a fan-base surrounding the obsolete technology. A small number of people still use the Betamax for its intended purpose – and not as a digital clock like myself. Online shops, flea markets, and auctions oftentimes re-purpose these old machines; and new cassettes are still available for purchase across the internet.

However, it would be the VHS to go toe-to-toe – and lose – against the DVD player in the subsequent decades.

beta vs vhs

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