the early 1960s major players in the U.S. electronics and entertainment
industries began making plans to develop some form of home video
system. All of these projects conceived of home video as a playback-only
system, employing some kind of disc. The basic assumption was that
consumers would purchase copies of video programs just as they purchased
phonograph records. In this way, the program producers could retain
strict control over the duplication and sale of their copyrighted
material. A machine that recorded could only mean one thing: piracy
of valuable rights. To U.S. interests, videotape was strictly a
corporations, however, sought to develop video recorders for consumer
use. Sony was the leader in this effort, making brief attempts to
open the home market with open-reel VTRs (videotape recorders) in
the mid-1960s, and 3/4" U-Matic VCRs (video cassette recorders)
in the early 1970s. These formats had been developed with home video
in mind, and although they were either too crude, complex, cumbersome
or costly to catch on with consumers, both were successes in educational
and industrial markets, allowing Sony to continue development work.
The U.S. video ventures tended to be over-promoted and under-engineered,
more hype than substance. RCA began making grand pronouncements
about its soon-to-be released video disc in 1969, yet the device
did not reach the market until 1981. One of the factors that plagued
the development of video disc systems was the chicken-and-egg nature
of the relationship between software and hardware. Hardware producers
were unwilling to invest major efforts if software wasn't available,
and software producers were unwilling to commit production to an
untried system. Sony did not have this problem. Sony CEO Akio Morita
had long felt that video's consumer potential lay in its ability
to free viewers from the rigid time constraints of the broadcast
schedule. "People do not have to read a book when it's delivered,"
he argued, "Why should they have to see a TV program when it's delivered?"
In 1975 Sony introduced the Betamax VCR with an ad campaign positioning
it as a product with unique single purpose: time-shift viewing.
did not suggest that viewers might then save the tapes, and begin
building a library of programs. But this prospect occurred almost
immediately to MCA president Sidney Sheinberg when he saw the first
Betamax ads. MCA, the parent company of Universal studios, was a
major entertainment copyright holder--and was also seeking to develop
its own video disc system. MCA sued Sony, arguing that the Betamax
encouraged copyright infringement, and seeking to have the VCRs
withdrawn from the market.
Betamax VCR system soon faced opposition in the market as well.
Sony's more powerful Japanese competitors Matsushita (the parent
company of Panasonic) and Hitachi developed their video cassette
recording devices on the VHS system, a format developed by JVC,
and incompatible with the Sony system.
early VCRs in any format were expensive--luxury items restricted
mainly to the relatively well-to-do--they sold well enough for the
manufacturers to expand production, and to worry the domestic video-disc
forces. In 1978, inside buzz in the consumer electronics industry
held that RCA was about to ship disc players with prices so cheap,
and with so much software and marketing power behind them, that
the Japanese upstarts would be sent packing and VCRs would go the
way of 8-track tape players. It didn't happen. Instead, RCA, GE,
Magnavox and other domestic companies entered the video business
by marketing VCRs manufactured by Matsushita and Hitachi. These
companies were willing to slap the U.S. brand names on their machines
because they could garner significant sales without spending large
sums on promotion or establishing new dealer networks.
original verdict in the Betamax case was delivered in 1979. Sony
won. MCA appealed, backed by the larger forces of the Motion Picture
Association of America and a coalition of copyright holders in other
mediums. In 1981, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the earlier
decision, but it did not order the Betamax withdrawn, leaving the
matter of penalty to be decided later. Though still not common household
items, VCRs had by this time won enough favor with the public that
it would have been politically unwise to prohibit them. No action
was taken, pending Sony's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When RCA finally released its long-awaited videodisc player that
same year, the cost was near that of a VCR, the picture was mediocre
and the discs began to wear out after a number of plays. The public
reacted with a collective yawn. The RCA videodisc was the only home
video product created directly by a major U.S. corporation ever
to reach the market.
a number of bills dealing with VCR development and use had been
introduced in Congress, none passed. In 1984 the Supreme Court reversed
the Appeals Court, ruling in Sony's favor on the grounds that home
video recording fell under the "fair use" provisions of copyright
law. However, Sony's legal triumph was tempered by setbacks in the
market. Almost all the U.S. companies marketing VCRs had opted for
the VHS format, and Betamax machines had steadily lost market share.
use continued to move away from mere time-shifting, and in the format
wars between the Beta and VHS systems, software was the deciding
factor. And software meant movies. When the Betamax appeared, the
movie industry had little interest in releasing old films on videocassette.
After all, the movies studios and trade organizations were supporting
the suit to get rid of the Betamax, and still had visions of video
discs dancing in their heads.
Nevertheless, a Michigan entrepreneur named Andre Blay decided to
start a pre-recorded videocassette business. He began soliciting
the studios, seeking to purchase the rights to distribute films
on tape. All but one rejected him. 20th Century Fox, strapped for
cash at the time, signed on, and in late 1976 Blay began selling
tapes through a video club arrangement advertised in TV Guide.
The promotion was an instant success. Blay and Fox made more money
than they had imagined, and the other film companies slowly but
surely followed them to this new source of profit.
Interior of a Blockbuster Video store
Photo courtesy of Blockbuster Entertainment Group
the first films on video were prepared for an untested market, they
were produced on a small scale and were quite expensive. Like the
first VCRs, they seemed to be luxury items with a limited market.
However, another entrepreneur struck on the idea of acquiring a
library of tapes and renting them out for a reasonable fee. This
seemed like a good idea to many would-be small businesspeople, and
video rental businesses quickly spread across the country. "Mom
and Pop" video shops seemed to appear on every local corner.
all the power of the large corporations that created the hardware,
this grass-roots phenomenon of tape rental was the key to the diffusion
of the VCR. With inexpensive software readily available for rent,
VCR ownership became more desirable. Rising VCR sales drew more
video titles into release and lowered rental prices, which helped
VCR sales grow again, and so on. Unfortunately for Sony, the fact
that a majority of VCR sales were VHS units led video shop owners
to stock more VHS titles, which led to even more VHS sales. The
Beta format was left on the wrong end of the economic spiral. By
1986, with basic models priced under $200 in discount stores, the
VCR was no longer a luxury, but a household staple, a piece of the
common culture. As the decade turned, Sony quietly folded Beta production
and began manufacturing VHS machines.
perhaps, most VCR owners rarely use the machines for time-shifting--most
VCR clocks will do nothing but blink "12:00" on into eternity. Instead
consumers use VCRs in purposes intended for the failed disc-players--to
play back pre-recorded material. Another irony: despite all the
entertainment industry's fears of piracy, videocassette sales proved
to a major source of revenue--the VCR helped save the studios instead
of helping destroy them. The Japanese triumph in the video wars
was the last straw in the collapse of the U.S. consumer electronics
industry, and signaled the development of new global relations in
the entertainment business. A final irony: in the 1990s Matsushita
purchased MCA (only to sell it in 1995, perhaps an indication that
the manufacturer is a stronger force in the creation of hardware
cultural impact of home video is not as easy to gauge as the economic.
When the VCR first arrived some social thinkers enveloped it in
utopian promise. By putting technology in the hands of the people,
their argument went, we finally had the mechanism to enable true
media diversity that would replace an imposed, top-down mass culture.
Indeed, videotape distribution does not require the economies of
scale necessary for large-scale network or even local broadcasting.
Thus, theoretically, home video opens the television medium to a
host of small, non-corporate voices. The utopian promise grew with
the advent of portable VCRs and video cameras, later refined into
the low-cost compact camcorder. With this technology almost anyone
could become a producer!
home video did not lead to a great democratic decentralization of
television. In the early days of the video business a number of
tapes from non-mainstream producers became widely available, but
these were largely pornography and low-grade slasher films. Even
these disappeared as the Mom and Pop video stores were displaced
by the clean corporate hegemony of Blockbuster Video and other chain
distributors. The pre-recorded tapes most VCR users pop into their
machines are mainstream products of an increasingly monopolized
culture industry. What home video has enabled is the phenomenon
of "cocooning," the ability to participate in cultural consumption
without going out in public. Even the camcorder remains a largely
private phenomenon, restricted by most users to home movies of family
events (with all cute-kid out-takes shipped off to America's
Funniest Home Videos, of course). Still, while home video has
had no revolutionary effect on the cultural mainstream, it has enabled
new activity at the margins. Independent, experimental or alternative
tapes of all sorts do get made and distributed. For example, Cathode
Fuck and other scabrous works of culture-criticism-on-video
circulate more freely and widely than the avant-garde films from
which they descended.
all, the history of home video indicates that technology does not
so much change society as better enable people to pursue their existing
interests, be it the few who experiment with media alternatives,
or the many who seek Hollywood thrills and romance from the comfort
of their living room sofas.
Mark R. and Barrie Gunter. Home Video And The Changing Nature
Of The Television Audience. London: Libbey, 1988.
Mark R, editor. The VCR Age: Home Video And Mass Communication.
Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1989.
Peter. Canada's Video Revolution: Pay-TV, Home Video And Beyond.
Toronto: J. Lorimer, in association with the Canadian Institute
for Economic Policy, 1983.
Video Age: Television Technology And Applications In The 1980s.
White Plains, New York: Knowledge Industry Publications, 1982.
Janet. Hollywood In The Information Age : Beyond The Silver Screen.
Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.