Beta and Betamax decks are alive and well. You probably won’t find them in your local home electronics store, though. Beta has been relegated mainly to television studio use as well as portable video news cameras.

The Rise and Fall of Betamax

James Russo

Classic Home Toys Installment #2:
The Rise and Fall of Betamax

by James Russo

Beta and Betamax decks are alive and well. You probably won't find them in your local home electronics store, though. Beta has been relegated mainly to television studio use as well as portable video news cameras.


This new column, Classic Home Toys, will feature electronics of yesteryear. It is this reviewers hope that this column and forthcoming articles will bring nostalgic memories back to those who used these formats and, hopefully, help out those readers who may still be using these formats to connect with other hobbyists who have an appreciation for what these home toys of yesteryear could do.

Let's go back in time in the electronics world to circa the mid 1970's.Movie theaters were still suffering a slump in box office sales and many theaters that had not closed their doors were now splitting up into multiplexes to increase business. Early cable television channels such as HBO had not yet made an appearance and the only way to purchase a feature film was to buy an abridged print of the film on Super 8mm. The world of home entertainment certainly has come a long way.

Enter into this prehistoric world of movie entertainmentBetamax. The worlds first home video format geared for consumers (3/4" or otherwise known as U-matic format was actually the world's first video format, but was relegated to industrial and television studio use only). Betamax video decks which debuted in electronic stores at around $2,000 - $3,000 a piece allowed consumers to tape off of broadcast television as well as purchase prerecorded movies, concerts, etc. which were produced by the movie companies. The Betamax deck and home video movies were considered revolutionary and Sony (who purchased the rights to produce the deck from Phillips) was poised to emerge as a titan in the home electronics industry

However, history would deal Sony a cruel blow and Betamax would not lead the electronics world as the first home video format, but would instead is ridiculed as a "white elephant" and would nearly disappear off the map. Instead of reaping millions in home video tape sales for its new Betamax format, Sony would lose millions and would be forever crippled by the failure of the Betamax format. How did it happen? The story is one of the electronics world most baffling failures

It is not known exactly what happened in those years after Betamax was introduced onto the market and VHS took over. It is known that Sony became embroiled in a lawsuit initiated by the Motion Picture Association of America. The case named Sony v. Universal Pictures would go from 1983 to 1984. Although most movie production companies were thrilled at the prospects of selling prerecorded movies on Beta, many producers were very concerned about the illegal copying and public exhibition of movies that could take place. Many were concerned about if home taping off of television constituted copyright infringement. Movie companies stood to lose millions of users began to make illegal copies of movies and then sold them. Although all Beta tapes carried stern warnings that illegal reproduction of the tapes was punishable by heavy fines and possible imprisonment, many electronics stores were already offering simple home equipment that would allow a person to make a copy of a movie from one Betamax deck to another.

In order not to anger the MPAA and powerful film company allies with its new venture, Sony was diplomatic about the dilemma and decided to hold back the Betamax format until the MPAA lawsuit could be settled. Sony began work with other video companies on an encoding for Beta tapes that would foil potential home reproduction of the tapes. However, another video company, rival JVC (Japan Video Company) was waiting in the wings with its own home video format, VHS which was an acronym for Video Home System. Beta and VHS were fairly similar except for a few exceptions. Beta was actually closer to a ¾" or U-matic deck than VHS was. The letter "U" in U- mastic comes from the U-shaped wrap of the videotape over the deck's video and audio heads. Beta's tape wrap was similar, but more closely resembled the Greek letter, B, thus the name, Beta. This U-wrap was more advanced than VHS' W-shaped wrap. The U- wrap put less stress and strain on videotapes and prevented tape breakage and tape "crinkle" which would plague VHS rentals in latter years

While Sony remained embroiled with the MPAA on its Beta format, JVC introduced VHS to the world. The rest you could say is history. When Sony reintroduced Beta onto the electronics scene, millions of home viewers had already purchased VHS decks which were also dropping rapidly in price and were loaded with features. It remains a mystery while Sony was punished by a lawsuit while JVC was allowed to markets its rival format, but many have theorized that Sony's Beta format was so revolutionary and the movie world so unprepared for it that they may have had to take the heat since the format was introduced first.

Unlike Super 8mm film which was highlighted in the previous Classic Home Toys column, Beta and Betamax decks are alive and well. You probably won't find them in your local home electronics store, though. Beta has been relegated mainly to television studio use as well as portable video news cameras. The unique and advanced U-wrap of Beta player and the higher picture resolution made Sony's Beta the favorite of television studio around the globe. According to insiders who have been employed at Sony Corporation, higher ups at Sony never quite forgot about the severe blow that the loss of the home video market dealt them. In later years, Sony would form several small offshoot companies in an attempt to market films onto video in attempt to control the so-called "software" end of the video market. Many of these companies were short lived. Sony would later purchase Columbia pictures in an attempt to make revenue from the movie end of the business.

Next installment: Before there was DVD there was....Laservision.

Related Links:

 (1 & 2 show the landmark case involving the MPAA's lawsuit against Sony)

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