Technical advances in computing are arriving so fast that it's almost impossible to have an up-to-date system of your own; if it's out of the shipping carton, it must be last-generation. From a cultural standpoint, this condition is fraught with danger. Obsession with the new, we are told, can cause us to devalue the not-so-new for no good reason. I don't think, though, that I was particularly worried about cultural dynamics when I bought that Beta VCR this week.

Much has been written over the years about how Sony's original home-video system was driven to near-extinction by the rival VHS system. Betaphiles, and there are more of them left than you thought, will tell you that the only area in which VHS surpassed Beta was in marketing smarts, and that the general public was too dumb to notice the difference. Some of this is even true. In my experience, and I've had to look at a lot of VCRs, tapes made at Beta II (the earlier Beta I speed was better, but it used up twice as much tape) and VHS SP speeds don't differ very much in quality — at least, using the NTSC system that prevails in the US. Beta fans with PAL machines say it isn't even close.

But picture quality is only one factor. Here in North America, L-750 Beta tapes and T-120 VHS tapes used to sell for the same price, and for that price, you could record three hours on Beta, only two hours on VHS. At the slower speeds, you could get six hours on VHS at EP, versus only 4.5 hours on Beta III, but the Beta III picture was always better.

So what happened to Beta? Part of the problem, at least in the US, was buyer habit; at the time, RCA was the preeminent player in the home-television market, and once RCA signed up to produce VHS machines, many American buyers were more than happy to pair their new RCA televisions with RCA's VHS VCRs. The clout of RCA was so great, in fact, that the company was able to launch a perfectly horrid vinyl-based videodisc system, complete with stylus and dust problems, and sell untold zillions of discs — I bought about a hundred, which should give you an idea of my level of cluelessness — before anybody realized it didn't work very well.

For Sony's part, the company thinks the playing-time issue — that six hours on a VHS tape was awfully tempting to someone who wanted to record five consecutive days of a one-hour soap — did them in, and the Urban Legends crew tends to agree, but I suspect a couple of egregious marketing errors added a couple of nails to the coffin. Sony's first Betamovie camcorder, startlingly, was a record-only device; you needed a separate VCR to play back what you'd recorded. While this might have had sold a few extra machines, it was a decided inconvenience. And what's more, Sony tended to overstate the exclusiveness of its improvements. For instance, when the first Beta Hi-Fi recorder appeared in the early Eighties, Sony wanted you to know that because of limitations in That Other Format, there wouldn't be any VHS Hi-Fi recorders. JVC, which licensed the VHS format, wasn't about to take this lying down, and after a couple of false starts, the VHS camp caught up. By this time, Beta was already spiraling downward.

Meanwhile, as I run through my dozens of old Beta tapes, most of which still look (and sound) pretty darn good, even on this 13-year-old machine, I'm more than happy to dismiss both Sony's ineptitude and VHS's dubious triumph as historical trivia. Eventually, tape of all sorts will be replaced by some form of digital whatzit, and there will be format struggles anew, at which I will happily shrug and mutter, "Been there, done that." Besides, as the owner of a 14-year-old car, a 17-year-old television, and a 23-year-old stereo (and quadraphonic!) receiver, I am obviously no stranger to retro technology. The next inevitable step must be an 8-track player. And don't even think of putting a Macintosh joke here.

The Vent

#82
20 December 1997

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 Copyright © 1997 by Charles G. Hill