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Sharper picture, clearer sound, smaller cassettes, so where did Betamax go wrong?



What are you? - The other video cassette system, Iím the one that everyone remembers as the looser in the first major format battle of the modern era.


When were you born? Officially in 1975, but much of the technology, including the layout of the tape cassette and the design of the deck mechanism, were derived from the professional U-Matic system, that Sony introduced in 1971.


So what happened? -- At first everything went really well.  Back then I was the first affordable home video recording system for both the NTSC and PAL TV systems, a true world standard. The Philips VCR format was only available in Europe, it was expensive, and tapes kept snapping; VHS lagged behind by several months in most countries. When it eventually appeared everyone agreed my picture and sound performance was better, moreover the cassettes were smaller and more convenient. Unfortunately Sony were very protective. Only a handful of other manufacturers were granted licenses to build Beta VCRs, so there was comparatively little choice of hardware and prices remained fairly high. In contrast JVC, who developed VHS, were keen to broaden the market as quickly as possible and many more companies made machines and a large number of household brands badge-engineered JVC decks, so VHS prices fell rapidly. In the UK the highly developed rental TV market got VHS off to a good start.


Was price the only factor? - Not so much in the early days, but as the VCR population started to grow so too did the demand for pre-recorded software. Duplication houses were reluctant to invest huge sums of money for both types of equipment so they tended to give priority to VHS systems, that were both faster and cheaper. VHS was also became the format of choice for the emerging porno video industry, that played a significant role in its success.


Did you just give up?  - Not without a struggle, and I continued to lead the way with a string of technical advances until the mid 1980s. I was the first home video format with stable picture search and stereo hi-fi sound. Super Beta was as good, if not better than Super VHS, there was even a Beta VCR with a tape autochanger. Sony developed a digital PCM recording system using Betamax tapes, and the Sony Betamovie was the first camcorder, but by 1984 the writing was on the wall.


How much longer did you survive? - Iíve never really gone away, and the Americans stayed faithful until the late 1980ís. However, the supply of domestic eventually VCRs dried up, though in some countries -- but not the UK -- you can still buy a Sony Beta VCR on special order. Itís not over yet and Betamax lives on. During the early 90ís the format found a fresh market in broadcast video, with the development of Betacam ENG (electronic news gathering) professional camcorders, and latterly, digital Betacam, which has become a standard within the broadcasting industry. Down, but certainly not out!   



” R. Maybury 1997 2104


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