Most people huddled around the New Releases shelf at Cropduster Video have never actually seen a LaserDisc, let alone purchased one, which explains how it is that the first truly superior video format never rose above niche acceptance in twenty years. And now that its replacement is poking its nose above the horizon, it's perhaps time to take a look back.

Actually, the history of today's LaserDisc actually goes back thirty years, to the formation of MCA's DiscoVision group in the late Sixties, which decided that the most sensible format for nascent home video would be an optical disc. The first experimental model was demonstrated in 1973, and the appreciative audience included representatives from the Dutch electronic giant Philips, which had been working on a videodisc system of its own but was sufficiently impressed by the DiscoVision group's prototype to suggest they pool their efforts.

After a couple of false starts, the first discs from DiscoVision's California plant and a Philips-built Magnavox-branded player (US$749) were put on sale in Atlanta in December 1978. They vanished within minutes. MCA had struck a deal with Pioneer Electronics of Japan to produce another player, and after DiscoVision fell apart, a victim of production problems and high costs, Pioneer purchased all the production facilities and struck out on its own. The current incarnation of Discovision (now with a small v) continues to own and license the pertinent patents, but for the rest of its existence, the LaserDisc would be first and foremost a Pioneer product.

By the late Eighties, most dealers in laser had been pushing the product as "like a CD for video", despite the fact that the videodisc had existed as a retail product long before the CD. Once CDs began to catch on, Pioneer began producing combination players that handled both LaserDiscs and CDs, which may have been what kept the format going during the inexorable rise of VHS tape. Serious video collectors continued to buy laser when they could, but the mass market was firmly committed to cassettes.

Now, of course, the DVD is here, and it really is "like a CD for video", and it offers more options than even the fanciest LaserDisc, at a lower price. Assuming DVD doesn't falter — which assumes, among other things, that it doesn't trip over Bizarro World marketing ideas like the incompatible pay-per-view Divx discs — it will take over as the format of choice. Of course, I'll still be playing my LaserDiscs on my current Pioneer player, which conveniently sits on the same shelf as my Beta VCR.

Note: While I was involved with the format for much of its early history, and remember lots of excruciating details, I am truly indebted to Blaine Young, keeper of the MCA DiscoVision Web site, who knows seemingly everything about its creation and subsequent semi-rise.

The Vent

9 March 1998

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 Copyright © 1998 by Charles G. Hill