Betamax and VHS: 1975-?
I have not had occasion to mention Betamax or VHS in tymshft.
Well, actually I have.
In 2012, while writing about the narrowing of generation gaps, I wrote the following:
The much-talked-about blog When Parents Text recently published a post entitled Collectables. In the series of texts, a father offering something for an auction that his son/daughter was holding. The reaction: “Who would buy those?”
No, the father didn’t offer a John Denver 8-track tape.
And no, he didn’t offer a Betamax tape of The Breakfast Club.
And a 2013 post quoted from my Facebook rant (a “get off my wedding lawn, you Glasshole” rant):
When I was married, my big innovation was to ask the organist to play “Now the Green Blade Riseth.” I didn’t ask my bride to be to parade down the aisle accompanied by a Macintosh Plus, or with a VHS camera.
Some of the readers of those posts may not have been aware of what I was referring to in those posts. For those readers, I’ll catch you up – although as you can see, it’s too late. (Almost.)
I was oblivious to Betamax and VHS when they first appeared (I wouldn’t experience them until almost a decade later), so I’ll turn to Andrew Liszewski (NOT to be confused with A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz) to explain the beginning of Betamax and VHS:
[T]he first home video recorder to hit the market back in 1975 was from Sony, and used the company’s Betamax format. Soon after that, JVC released a competing home video recorder that was lighter, cheaper, and used VHS format tapes that could hold a two-hour movie instead of Betamax’s one-hour limit—and that was the key.
The idea of home video recording and playing was revolutionary at the time. Why? Because back in those days, if I wanted to see a movie, I had to walk five miles through the snow in my bare feet to get to a movie theater. Cable movie channels hadn’t really emerged yet, and it was rare when one of the three networks would show a theatrical movie. (You literally had to wait an entire year to see “The Wizard of Oz.”) So the whole idea of having a movie that you could take home and watch whenever you want was revolutionary. (Of course, the idea of just taping shows off the TV was also revolutionary, as the industry would soon discover.)
Betamax did not immediately go away, because it claimed technical superiority to the VHS format. In fact, when I started working at Logic eXtension Resources in 1983, all of the other employees had Betamax players. If I had bought a player at the time, it would have made sense to go Betamax. But I didn’t, and by the time I did, VHS had won the war.
Or the battle. Because eventually DVDs began to emerge, followed by streaming media.
So naturally, Betamax died due to all of the competition.
When? This year. While Sony quit making recorders in 2002, it was still making tapes in 2015, but planned to stop manufacturing tapes in March 2016.
Which leaves VHS.
Funai, the last remaining manufacturer of the VCR, will cease production of the players by the end of the month, according to Japanese newspaper The Nikkei (via Anime News Network). The company is citing a declining market and increasing difficulty in sourcing parts as the reasons behind the decision.
While Funai might not be a household name in the West, it did sell VCRs in North America, under the Sanyo brand name. With the rise in popularity of streaming services like Netflix, the declining market for VCRs might not come as a surprise, but something else might: how well they were still selling. Funai reportedly sold 750,000 VCRs in 2015.
Interestingly enough, this doesn’t mean that VHS itself is dead. After all, Betamax tapes were manufactured for over a decade after recorder manufacturing ceased.
So it’s quite possible that in 2026 you might walk into a store (a physical place where you can buy stuff) and see VHS tapes for sale.
But when the VHS tapes finally go away, the last free bastion of owning media will have disappeared.
Granted, you couldn’t completely own the prerecorded content on a VHS tape; you couldn’t edit it to your liking, for example. But at least you knew that if you bought a VHS tape in Rancho Cucamonga, California in 1983, it would still play in a player in Sydney, Australia in 2026 (accounting for TV format variations). Starting with DVDs, geographic encoding became the norm, so a DVD purchased in North America may not play in Europe. And of course with streaming media, sometimes the stream is shut off and you can’t enjoy it any more.
Kinda like seeing “The Wizard of Oz” only once a year.