In 1956, the Ampex company announced that it had developed a new device: the videotape machine. This large reel-to-reel tape machine used four record heads (and was for this reason given the name "quad") and two-inch wide tape. The invention was quickly embraced by the broadcasting community, and on 30 November 1956, CBS broadcast the first program using videotape. Videotape is very similar in composition to audiotape. Most videotape consists of a Mylar backing, a strong, flexible plastic material, that provides a base for a thin layer of ferrous oxide. This oxide is easily magnetized and is the substance that stores the video and audio information.

In 1969, Sony introduced its EIAJ-standard three-quarter-inch U-Matic series, a videocassette system. Although there were earlier attempts to establish a standard cassette or cartridge system, the U-Matic format was the first to become solidly accepted by educational and industrial users. Similar in construction and function to the audiocassette, the videocassette is a plastic container in which a videotape moves from supply reel to take-up reel, recording and playing back short program segments through a videocassette recorder (VCR). This form of construction emerged as a distinct improvement on earlier, reel-to-reel videotape recording and playback systems. The cassette systems, especially after they were integrated with camera and sound systems, enabled ease of movement and flexible shooting arrangements. The new devices helped create a wave of video field production ranging from what is now known as "electronic news gathering" to the use of video by political activist groups, educators, and home enthusiasts.

This last group was always perceived by video hardware manufacturers as a vast opportunity for further sales. After several abortive attempts to establish a consumer market with a home cartridge or cassette system, Sony finally succeeded with its Betamax format. Sony's success with Betamax was followed closely by other manufacturers with VHS (the "video home system"), a consumer-quality 1/2-inch videocassette system introduced by JVC. Although the VHS format still dominates the home entertainment field, several competing formats are vying for both the consumer market and the professional field. The greatly improved Super-VHS (S-VHS) format has technical specifications that equal broadcast and cable TV quality. The S-VHS system is in turn being challenged by two 8mm cassette formats--Video 8 (a consumer-grade video format developed by Sony that uses eight millimeter-wide tape) and Hi8 (an improvement on Sony's Video-8 format that uses metal particle tape and a higher luminance bandwidth). Other formats that are competing for the professional market include the 1/2-inch Betacam and Betacam SP systems, the 1/2-inch M-formats (M and M-II), 3/4-inch U-matic SP, and the even more recent digital formats (D-1 and D-2).

It is safe to say that the development of videocassette systems has transformed many aspects of televisual industries and more general experience with television. The innovations within news services, the rapid expansion of home video systems that transformed the financial base of the film industry, and the acceptance of "video" as an everyday aspect of contemporary experience all rely to a great extent on the videocassette.

-Eric Freedman


Various professional quality videocassettes
Photo courtesy of 3M


Browne, Steven E. Video Editing: A Postproduction Primer. Boston: Focal, 1989; (2nd edition, 1993).

Burrows, Thomas D., Donald N. Wood, and Lynne Schafer Gross. Television Production: Disciplines and Techniques. Dubuque, Iowa: Brown, 1978; (5th edition, 1992).

Zettl, Herbert. Television Production Handbook. London: Pitman, 1961; 5th edition, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1992.


See also Ancillary Markets; Betamax Case; Camcorder; Home Video; Sony Corporation; Videotape