In the last series of Technical Talk, we covered the era from the invention of the video tape recorder to the introduction of the video cassette recorder, where incompatibility became a serious issue and three competing standards existed Phillips, Betamax and the Japanese developed VHS) with different, physically incompatible tape cassettes. In this edition, we will look at the VHS and Betamax formats and go forward from there.

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A VHS VCR manufactured by Metz
It was not until the late 1970s, when European and Japanese companies developed more technically advanced machines with more accurate electronic timers and greater tape duration, that the VCR started to become a mass market consumer product.

The two major standards were Sony's Betamax (also known as Betacord or just Beta), and JVC's VHS [Video Home System], which battled for sales in what has become known as the original and definitive format war. Betamax was first to market in November 1975, and was argued by many to be technically more sophisticated although many users did not perceive a difference.

These first Sony Betamax machines required an external timer, and could only record one hour. The timer was later incorporated within the machine as a standard feature.

The rival VHS format, introduced in Japan in September 1976 (and in the United States in July 1977 by JVC) boasted a longer two-hour recording time, with four hours using a �long play� mode (RCA SelectaVision models, introduced in September 1977). As two and four hours were near-ideal for recording movies and sports-games respectively, the consumer naturally flocked towards VHS rather than the 1-hour-limited Betamax.

Although Sony later introduced Beta-II and Beta-III to allow a maximum time of 5+ hours, by that time VHS was already boasting six, eight or even nine hours per tape. Thus VHS had a perceived �better value� in the eye of the consumer at the time.

A third format, Video 2000, or V2000 (also marketed as Video Compact Cassette) was developed and introduced by Philips in 1978, and was sold only in Europe. Grundig developed and marketed its own models based on the V2000 format.

Most V2000 models featured piezoelectric head positioning to dynamically adjust the tape tracking. V2000 cassettes had two sides, and like the audio cassette had to be flipped over halfway through their recording time. User switchable record-protect levers were used instead of the breakable lugs found on VHS/BetaMax cassettes. The half-inch tape contained two parallel quarter-inch tracks, one for each side. It had a recording time of four hours per side, later extended to eight hours per side on a few models. V2000 hit the market after its two rivals in early 1979.

The last models produced by Philips in 1985 were felt by many to be superior machines to anything else on the market at the time - but the poor reputation gained through the limited features and poor reliability of early models, as well as the by now dominant market share of VHS/Betamax, ensured only limited sales and the system was scrapped.

Some less successful consumer videocassette formats include:

  • V-Cord, launched by Sanyo in 1974;
  • VX, launched by Panasonic in 1975; and
  • Compact Video Cassette (CVC), developed by Funai and Technicolor and introduced in 1980.

In the early 1980s, the film companies in the US fought to suppress the device in the consumer market, citing concerns about copyright violations. In the case Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the device was allowable for private use, thereby guaranteeing market acceptance.

In the years following, the film companies found that video recordings of their products had become a major income source. However, television networks found the widespread use of this device was threatening their advertising business model as it gave viewers the ability to either fast forward through television commercials or pause recording when they were broadcast.

In the early 2000s, DVD gradually overtook VHS as the most popular consumer format for playback of pre-recorded video. DVD recorders and other digital video recorders, such as TiVo, have recently begun to drop in price in developed countries, resulting in some saying it�s the end for VCRs in those markets.

DVD rentals in the US first exceeded those of VHS in June 2003 and in 2005, the president of the Video Software Dealers Association predicted that 2006 would be the last year for major releases on VHS. Most consumer electronics retailers in North America (such as Best Buy) carry only a few VCRs (often VCR/DVD-recorder hybrids). Due to economies of scale, DVD players gradually became cheaper than VCRs.

Due to the lack of sales, most manufacturers slowly reduced their VCR line-ups to only basic consumer models (phasing out professional models and S-VHS models) or stopped production completely.

In next month�s edition we will look at HD recordings and Blue Ray, as well as take a look at copy protection and how it is achieved. If you have any comments or queries on this article, or would like us to cover any other topic, please let us know. E-mail editor@gautengfilm.org.za