Why VHS Succeeded and Beta Failed

Why VHS Succeeded and Beta FailedThe first time I ever saw a VCR it was rented for a friend's birthday party and we watched Star Wars. A couple of years later, we bought our first VCR. We went with VHS, even though the local video store guy carried titles in VHS and Beta.

Soon thereafter, VHS won the format war and Beta went bye-bye. Here's a little video that helps explain why VHS succeeded and Beta failed.

Who out there owned a Betamax VCR?


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Comments (31 - click here to join in!)

markosaar

Saw this come up elsewhere a few times today. It completely ignores the porn argument which has traditionally been considered the main reason why VHS won.

June 17, 2014 @ 6:32 PM

markosaar

Er, and I have a Betamax VCR behind me. I'm supposed to use it to convert family tapes to digital at some point.

June 17, 2014 @ 6:32 PM

Toronto Mike Verified as the defacto Toronto Mike

@markosaar

As I understand it, the porn factor was a myth. At least there's no supporting evidence on the interwebs.

June 17, 2014 @ 6:42 PM

Toronto Mike Verified as the defacto Toronto Mike

@markosaar

And send me a pic of that badboy

June 17, 2014 @ 6:45 PM

Detlef

I owned a laser disc player. :-(

June 17, 2014 @ 7:07 PM

McNulty

My friend owned a Beta. We made fun of his small tapes.

June 17, 2014 @ 9:39 PM

Rick C in Oakville

I remember renting a top loader and some grainy porn, but also Richard Pryor and Dice Clay videos for my cousins stag in 1984. I think the rental was around $75.00 for a weekend if memory serves me right.

June 17, 2014 @ 9:58 PM

GUNTer

I remember my friend had the disc player. It cost a fortune. She owned Animal House so that's what we watched fifty times over.

June 17, 2014 @ 10:02 PM

Andrew

I still own a laser disc player. A Denon LA-3500 - where I can watch Star Wars, Empire and Jedi in their original forms without all that added Special Edition bullshit!!!

I also have Jaws, Raiders and some others.

Glorious 480p viewing pleasure....

Cheers,
Andrew

June 17, 2014 @ 10:39 PM

Boomer

Still have a Sanyo Mike and a bunch of tapes!

June 17, 2014 @ 10:44 PM

markosaar

The door covering the lower-left switches apparently fell off recently ... must be around here somewhere.

Also does sound like the porn argument is a myth. Most telling signs that there actually was porn on Beta (just not as much) but that porn sales were a tiny proportion of all tapes for both formats, so could never been that influential.

June 18, 2014 @ 7:35 AM

markosaar

Oh dear, should have read,

"The most telling signs being that there actually was porn on Beta (just not as much), but that porn sales were a tiny proportion of all tapes for both formats, so it could never been that influential."

June 18, 2014 @ 7:36 AM

519 Rob

I don't think I've ever seen a BETA machine in person. Which I find strange since at 39 I certainly lived through that era.

But I do recall my parents renting a laser disc player (I guess that's what it was...discs the size of an LP) for my...maybe 10th birthday.
We watched Tron.

Shortly after we owned a VCR and that was the end of renting a machine.

June 18, 2014 @ 8:17 AM

Philly-Bob

There was never a question in my house...we were a VHS family.

However, my Dad Wend with HD DVD...said the name blue ray sounded silly and no one would buy it....

June 18, 2014 @ 8:21 AM

Cambo

The HDDVD/BlueRay argument was interesting. I remember that battle with Hollywood that again, Sony screwed up. It's because Sony is so proprietary that we pay so much to this day for Blu-rays- that people rarely watch now anyway.

June 18, 2014 @ 8:29 AM

markosaar

Re: blu-ray sounding "silly", I suppose it never occurred to me. I always thought it was a pretty great name since it's based on blue-wavelength laser technology. (As opposed to CDs/DVDs which used red lasers with a larger wavelength.)

Personally I love BluRay movies and see it as a great evolution from DVD. DVD content looks ugly to me on modern high-def displays. Also I love the way the bonus features are incorporated in BluRay as overlays and often software-based rather than video. I feel like I may have watched the bonus features of one DVD ever, though I tend to devour them on my BluRay movies.

June 18, 2014 @ 8:48 AM

Philly-Bob

@ Mark - but you have to understand that my old man was about 55-56 at the time and he had no idea why it was called blue-ray...he just thought it sounded silly, and both HD and DVD were terms he was familiar with.

June 18, 2014 @ 9:17 AM

Justin

I grew up in the 1990s. Had no clue what Betamax was. Thanks for the history lesson!

June 18, 2014 @ 10:13 AM

Douglas

My family eventually bought a pretty nice Mitsubishi VHS machine. By that time, the Beta-VHS "war" was over. The bottom line was ultimately the bottom line: The cheaper and less-expensive format won out, or as the fellow in the video put it, VHS was "good enough". Yes, Beta tapes did not hold as much material; Sony chose higher quality/resolution. Consumers simply wanted more on their (expensive) tapes. Research proved that when recording their own programs, over 90% of VHS owners used the slowest tape speed setting, typically allowing six to eight hours of recorded programming. Try watching one of those recordings now - on either an analogue or digital TV. Yes, I know, you're wincing, too.

DVDs came along, and now we have BluRay. If only the electronics industry could have dealt with unifying television standards around the work with the conversion to digital broadcasting. Instead, we still have NTSC (US-developed and driven), PAL, SECAM and several more. We won't get into Hollywood's region-coding and locking of discs and players.

June 18, 2014 @ 11:26 AM

markosaar

@Douglas,

Digital broadcasts aren't standardised, but HD formats are. So your ATSC-tuner TV won't be able to decode OTA DVB-T broadcasts in Europe, but the video format itself is fine. So region-free BluRay discs will play on any digital TV. It's just old standard definition content that's annoyingly incompatible.

June 18, 2014 @ 12:03 PM

Wulv

I am sitting in a room that contains a ton of old players of multiple formats. We have multiple VHS, Beta, Beta Max, Beta Cam, LaserDisc (as said above, this is the best way to watch the original Star Wars Trilogy) U-Matic (3/4 Tape) etc. Our Video Disc player (CED) died but I haven't seen anything in that format for years.

I work at a university, we have so much old crap lying around and they are just now getting over to transferring it to a digital format.

Read up on CED Videodisc, we had one given to us when I was a kid. We used to rent movies at Consumers Distributing.

June 18, 2014 @ 12:08 PM

Anonymous

It also led to the creation of Sony Music. Sony recognized the need to capture content for their following generation of devices. This saga is well covered in a pretty good book called "The Strategy Paradox"

June 18, 2014 @ 1:32 PM

Argie

Sony is also going hard with the 4K format. It remains to be seen if the rest of the world will catch on.

I doubt cable or Fibe will be able to handle 4K which is why it may die out in a few years.

June 18, 2014 @ 3:26 PM

markosaar

@Argie,

Don't know if cable or Fibe can, but BluRay and, most importantly, internet streaming can. You can watching Breaking Bad and House of Cards on Netflix in 4K for example. YouTube supports it too.

June 18, 2014 @ 3:41 PM

markosaar

watch, not watching.

June 18, 2014 @ 3:41 PM

Anon&on

My parents refused to go VHS. They went CED videodisc, then laser disc.
I have a couple CED players (and a MIP stylus), couple laser players, and boxes of movies in both formats.

When I bought a VCR, it cost more than my TV. Close to $700 with tax.
I think schools went Beta to replace the 16mm projectors.

June 18, 2014 @ 5:51 PM

Blind Dave

My parents had one for about a week, then someone told them VHS was better so they swapped machines. The VHS machine lasted over 20 years. I think it was a JVC top loader and my nephew eventually had it for the last years of its life.

June 18, 2014 @ 9:10 PM

Ryan P

OHH!!!

I'm 26 and I have a Betamax - HAH!

Actually, my dad had it and was throwing it out so I decided to dedicate a bit of shelf space to it and hang on to it. My hope is that it becomes worth something someday but I doubt that will happen.

June 19, 2014 @ 8:50 AM

Ajax Mike

My family bought TWO betamax VCRs before switching to VHS. I don't think the first wore out, I seem to recall it was mostly in order to record rented movies for watching again later. Old school pirating, yarr.

June 19, 2014 @ 10:30 AM

Ashram

The failure of the Betamax format had several factors.

1. Licensing difficulties. Sony approached 3rd party licensing of Beta about the same way they approached licensing U-Matic, which is that licensing tended to be expensive and adherence to the specs was relatively strict. The moment a less expensive and easier alternative became available (ahem ... VHS), manufacturers flocked to it.

2. Technology sharing. JVC was a U-Matic licensee to Sony. Sony had been working with the M-loading pattern for tape in an effort to create a home video cassette format, but they couldn't get it to work as they couldn't figure out how to reduce stress on the tape when pulled around the video head drum at two points. Sony apparently sold that technology to JVC, which then figured out the problems and used it in their development of VHS. Sony would end up using the U-loading pattern that was used for U-Matic for Betamax, which pulls the tape around the video head drum at one point.

3. Corporate politics. At one point, Hitachi wanted to sign on to Betamax, but Sony would not let them for fear that having Hitachi sign on may alienate Matsushita Electric, which Sony hoped to get onboard the Beta bandwagon. Unfortunately, Sony did not realize that a Matsushita Electric subsidiary, JVC, was working on VHS. Hitachi would end up signing up with the VHS camp. Sony also had snubbed at least one Beta licensee: Marantz. Marantz had developed a model that had linear stereo with Dolby System type C noise reduction. About the same time Marantz introduced their VR-200, Sony announced Beta hi-fi, which had sound quality superior to the Marantz offering. This embarrassment irritated Marantz, in that they wasted time with a model that was rendered obsolete before it even hit the market along with the fact that Sony never bothered to tell Marantz, a well-known hi-fi company, about Beta hi-fi. Their VR-200 would be their first AND last Beta model as Marantz would market VHS models from then on.

4. RCA. RCA was originally interested in Betamax, but RCA's marketing department had raised concerns about the limitations with the single tape speed yielding only one hour of recording time on 500 feet of tape (X1 speed, a.k.a. BI, on L-500) that Beta originally had. Sony's engineering department indicated that slower tape speeds for longer times was possible. Sony corporate basically told RCA to take it or leave it. RCA left it and ended up going with VHS. Interestingly, RCA also raised concerns with JVC about the single tape speed yielding only 2 hours of time. This would cause RCA to collaborate with JVC's corporate parent, Matsushita Electric (Panasonic), behind its back to create the four hour LP speed for the North American market. This is why JVC referred to the 4 hour speed as "the bastard" as it was developed without JVC. It's also why that it's only in North America where the slowest possible tape speed (6 hours on T-120), when it was officially developed by JVC, is called SLP or EP while it's called LP elsewhere in the world. It's also why JVC VCRs only had two tape speeds for recording while VCRs from various manufacturers, particularly Panasonic, would have three speeds in North America.

5. Overconfidence in advancements. Sony would invent features for Beta and claim that VHS would not be able to catch up ... except they did. When Sony invented "Betascan," which allowed you to perform a visual search at high speed in forward or reverse direction, Sony would claim that VHS couldn't duplicate it. JVC answered the challenge. Sony would invent Beta hi-fi, which enabled near-CD quality sound to be recorded onto video cassette regardless of tape speed along with the claim that VHS couldn't duplicate it. And, you guessed it! JVC did.

6. Underestimation of the market's tastes. For North America, Sony tended to produce mostly simple VCRs, leaving more advanced functions available only in their higher end offerings. Their rationale was that North American customers were not sophisticated enough to really make use of the advanced features that Sony offered as standard fare in lesser models elsewhere. RCA, among others, on the other hand, tended to produce models with more bells and whistles for the money. Guess which one ended up being the better value argument to customers?

As more customers bought into VHS because of lower cost, longer recording times, and greater variety of VCRs from many more brands, software inevitably had to follow hardware. While the major studios could afford to distribute movies on both formats, many smaller companies could only afford to choose one or the other, so the smaller companies ended up distributing content on the format with the larger installed base. Also, many small-business video rental shops had to choose one or the other, so they went with the format having the greater installed base.

With more content available to buy and rent on VHS than Beta, more customers would be inclined to start with VHS or even replace Beta with VHS. Due to that factor, content like pornography would have to be available with greater selection on VHS than Beta, so the porn argument was more indicative of a symptom rather than a factor in itself.

June 20, 2014 @ 4:28 AM

AR

Good for Sony for trying to come out ahead with 4k at the World Cup. They've done so many great things in tech in the past but are known as a struggling giant today.

June 26, 2014 @ 12:22 AM

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