In 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 professional medium.

Japanese 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.

Sony 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.

The 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

Though 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.

VCR 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

Because 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.

For 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.

Ironically 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 than software.)

The 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!

Yet 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.

In 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.

-David J. Tetzlaff


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Levy, Mark R, editor. The VCR Age: Home Video And Mass Communication. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1989.

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The Video Age: Television Technology And Applications In The 1980s. White Plains, New York: Knowledge Industry Publications, 1982.

Wasko, Janet. Hollywood In The Information Age : Beyond The Silver Screen. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.