Betamax vs. VHS Videotape Wars

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Podcast Transcript

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a war erupted in the world of video technology.

Two competing video tape formats fought to gain supremacy in the market. In the end, one format crushed the other and was left as the victor.

However, legend holds that the inferior format was actually the victorious one. 

Learn more about Betamax vs. VHS videotape wars and if the worse technology actually won on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There are some of you listening to this who will remember the videotape format wars quite well, or if you don’t remember the format war, then at least you remember videotape. 

For those of you too young to remember videotape, back before the days of Netflix and the Internet, you could store video in an analog format on magnetic tape. 

The tapes were extremely popular, and most households in developed countries had them. You could buy or rent movies on tape, record directly from television, or record your own videos on tape.

Before I get into the Betamax v. VHS formats, I want to give a brief history of videotapes because this seems like an entirely appropriate place to do.

If you remember back to my episode on the history of audio recording, during the second world war, American radio engineers noticed something odd about German radio broadcasts. The quality of their repeat episodes was just as good as the quality of their live episodes. 

This was not the case in the Allied countries, where recordings had to be made on a wax disc. 

After the war, it was discovered that the Germans had developed magnetic tape that could record audio at very high levels of quality. 

The technology spread rapidly after the war and began being used for audio recordings in the early 1950s. This is why there was such a great leap in audio quality in recordings from this era.

That same magnetic tape, it was realized, could be used to record signals from the new medium of television. While a video signal was more complex, it could be saved by using a wider tape in addition to recording the audio as well.

The world’s first videotape demonstration was given on November 11, 1951, by Bing Crosby Enterprises, the company owned by singer Bing Crosby.

Other companies, including the BBC and RCA, began experimenting with videotape in the early 50s as well. 

In the early days of television, recordings of broadcasts were made on a device known as a kinescope, which literally was a film camera pointed at a video screen. 

The first commercial videotape recorder that was good enough to replace a kinescope was sold by the AMPEX corporation out of Chicago in April 1956. 

By November of that year, CBS was using videotape to broadcast programs that had been recorded earlier.

Known as VTR, for videotape recording, the technology become widespread with television networks because tapes could be reused and cost less money than using a kinescope.

It didn’t take long for people to begin imagining videotapes for home use. Reel-to-reel audio machines had developed a niche with high-end audio consumers. Certainly, there must have been a niche for video as well. 

The first home VTR system was called Telcan, short for Television in a Can. It was released in 1963 by the Nottingham Electronic Valve Company in the UK. The device was incredibly expensive, costing over £30,000 inflation-adjusted pounds. 

It was an open reel system that could only record 20 minutes of video and only in black and white, which was the only type of television available in the UK at the time. 

Needless to say, the system was not a hit.

In 1965, Sony released the CV-2000, which was their first consumer videotape system. It was much cheaper than the Telcan system, but it had the same limitations. 

The 1960s saw the release of new magnetic tape formats for audio which were easier to play. The tape was encased in a cassette, which means you didn’t have to handle the raw tape.

The cassette concept was adapted to videotape, and several video cassette formats were introduced. 

Sony released their U-Matic format in 1971, and Phillips released their VCR format in 1972. These were marketed to professional video producers.

The first home video cassette system was from neither company. It was called Cartrivision. Cartrivision devices were entire televisions with a tape player built into the TV.

You could purchase blank tapes to record programs, but you could also rent pre-recorded movies, which was an industry first. The prerecorded cassettes were designed such that they couldn’t be rewound inside a standard Cartrivision player. 

The Cartivision players were very expensive, selling for $1,350 or about $9,000 inflation-adjusted US dollars. The tapes, it turned out, were highly sensitive to humidity, and most of them were destroyed sitting in a warehouse.

Cartivision sales were flat, and the company went out of business within a year. Today Cartivision televisions are extremely rare and worth a lot of money. 

The idea behind Cartivision wasn’t a bad one. Major electronics manufacturers could see the benefit of consumer video cassette players. 

This finally brings me to the subject of this episode. 

In 1974, Sony began work on a consumer video cassette system, and in 1975 they released their system, which they called Betamax.  

The selection of the name had two meanings. The first was because it was a Japanese word to describe how video signals were recorded to the tape. The second meaning was from the Greek letter beta, the shape of which looked like how the tape physically moved in the machine.

The first Betamax cassettes which were released were 156 millimeters, or 6.1 inches wide, and could hold an hour of recorded video. 

Around the same time that Sony was working on the Betamax system, the JVC corporation was working on their own format, which they called VHS, for Video Home System. 

JVC released its system to the public in 1976. VHS tapes were larger than Betamax tapes, but they could record two hours of video as opposed to Betamax’s one. 

In a world with two or more competing technical formats, usually, only one of them will survive. It is a lot easier for everyone just to agree one some sort of standard that everyone can use rather than having incompatible formats floating around that cause confusion. 

Here I should address the legend which has surrounded the Betamax vs. VHS debate for decades.

The legend says that Betamax was a superior product and technically better than VHS, but it lost out in the market anyhow. It, along with QWERTY keyboards, is used as an example to prove how the best product doesn’t necessarily win. 

I’ve addressed the QWERTY keyboard issue in a previous episode, and the short version of it is that QWERTY keyboards weren’t actually worse than alternative keyboard layouts.

So, was Betamax really better than VHS? 

There were some very technical arguments to be made for Betamax.

For starters, the video resolution of Betamax was 233 horizontal lines. VHS only had 220 lines. Technically, Betamax did allow for higher-resolution video.

However, the difference between 233 and 220 was so small that most people couldn’t tell the difference when they saw both systems running side by side. 

Betamax also offered something called BetaScan, which allowed for high-speed image search forwards and backward. 

Also, Betamax tapes were smaller and more compact. 

So, there is an argument to be made that Betamax was in some technical way superior, but the technical advantages of Betamax were seen to be small or inconsequential.

Considering that Betamax had a full-year head start and they had some technical advantages over VHS, why was it that VHS won out in the end?

The biggest thing was that the first generation of Betamax tapes could only record one hour’s worth of video. If you wanted to record a sporting event on television, you couldn’t do it with a single Betamax tape. You couldn’t watch an entire movie on a single Betamax tape. 

When VHS tapes were released, they could record two hours of video, which was enough for a full movie and enough to record most games. 

When it came to what people actually wanted to do with a home video player, VHS met their needs. 

Moreover, the quality of VHS was pretty much the same as broadcast television, so a few more lines of resolution didn’t really matter. 

While the amount of video that could be put on a tape was probably the biggest reason why VHS won in the end, it wasn’t the only reason.

Sony viewed their system as a proprietary format. They tried to get the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry to adopt Betamax as the standard for the entire industry. Sony would retain ownership and control of the standard and would then license out the technology.

JVC felt that an open standard would be better. A standard that everyone could use without having to pay a licensing fee. 

Soon after the formats hit the market, changes were made to adapt to conditions in the market.

Sony eventually released a version of Betamax, which ran the tape slower to hold two hours of video. 

However, companies began releasing VHS players, which could record four and eventually six hours of video on a tape. There was much more consumer demand for storing more video on a tape than there was for higher-quality video. Four hours allowed for an entire football game to be recorded, which was something Betamax couldn’t do.

Because VHS machines were created by a multitude of companies, there was more competition. Betamax machines were only built by Sony and a few other manufacturers that licensed the technology.

By 1980, VHS had 60% of the market in the United States. By 1981, VHS had 75% of the market, and by 1984 they had 92.5% market share. 

Because VHS was a more open format that didn’t require licensing, it had more support from movie studios. More movies were released in VHS, and some movies simply couldn’t be released in Betamax because they were too long. 

When video rental stores began to proliferate, they gravitated towards the format that more people had and that more movies were available for. 

Eventually, new and improved versions of VHS were released. VHS-C was a compact version of the VHS, released in 1984, that could fit into an adapter that could play on any VHS device. 

S-VHS was a higher-quality version of VHS that was released in 1987. 

By 1988, Sony began producing VHS players. 

Despite the video format wars being over in the early 1980s, Sony never totally gave up on Betamax. 

In 1985 they introduced SuperBetamax and in 1988, they introduced Extended Definition Betamax. 

Sony kept producing Betamax video recorders until 2002, and kept producing Betamax video cassettes until March 2016. There are some third-party companies that still make small quantities of Betamax cassettes today.

VHS was the dominant video recording platform until 2002, when DVD sales overtook tape sales.

The success of VHS and the failure of Betamax wasn’t a case of an inferior technology beating a superior technology. It was a case of one format delivering what they thought people wanted vs. another which delivered what they actually wanted. 

People didn’t care about minor differences in image quality on old standard-definition television sets. What they wanted was to record and play longer videos. 

The fact that Sony tried to control and profit off the entire Betamax ecosystem, whereas JVC make the VHS ecosystem open, also ensured that VHS would end up victorious.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Saqib Khan, from Apple Podcasts in the United Kingdom. They write:

This podcast is approved from Tatooine in a galaxy far, far away… or Tunisia

Whilst I live in England, my wife is Tunisian, and we spend a few months a year in her homeland. This is when and where I consume the episodes of your fantastic podcast (whilst fending off attacks from the local Tusken raider Sand People). So, therefore, I feel I have unlocked the Tunisian branch of the Everything Everywhere Daily club!

I’m now listening backward from the most current and also forward from the oldest, and I hope to join the completion club sometime in the future, around December 2021!

May the force be with you, Gary.

Thanks, Saqib! I will allow for a technical unlocking of the Tunisia badge. I’m glad you are listening to the show while you visit the country.

My only word of warning is that you should avoid the Mos Eisley spaceport. I have been told by reputable sources that it is a wretched hive of scum and villany.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.