originally published July 31, 2012

Hey, way to underwhelm me, Wikipedia. Can a topic get any more dull than videotape? Masking tape would have given me more to work with – at least with masking tape I could write about that time I tried to mummify a hobo using only masking tape, cooking sherry, and that discount potpourri I picked up at Pier 1 on Boxing Day a few years ago.

Instead, let’s go to the tape.

I grew up around videotape. Mine was the first generation to see Hollywood releases available for home viewing, and I was the first in my class to own the first two Star Wars movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which solidified my popularity in the second grade. At one time, my father (who, in all fairness, was involved professionally in video and film production) had nine functioning VCRs stacked around our house. I used a Betamax to record the shows I wasn’t old enough to stay up to watch, and relied on my VHS so that I could rent Ishtar the moment it showed up at that store on the corner.

So what can I learn about videotape that I don’t already know?

It all started with this guy. Bing’s production company, aptly named Bing Crosby Enterprises, presented the first demonstration of video tape technology on November 11, 1951. The first images were blurry and unusable, but tech pioneers John T. Mullin and Wayne R. Johnson weren’t about to give up until every red-blooded American could possess the technology to watch explicit pornography in the comfort of his or her own home.

BCE showed off an improved (and color) version of the technology in 1954, just a year after the first color broadcast experiment had trickled through the tube. Color was fairly inefficient at this point, requiring five simultaneous tracks – one for red, blue, green, audio and synchronization. RCA was just about to feed a boatload of money into BCE’s hungry gullet to start mass-producing their technology, when Ampex stepped up and delivered quadruplex technology.

I’m not going to explain the benefits of transverse, four-head scanning systems, and why it was better than anything else on the market, because there is literally no way to do that and make it interesting. Let’s just say that quadruplex was the way to go, and in 1956 CBS was ready to roll out the technology to its viewers. Videotape’s debut was also the debut of tape-delay, as the New York-filmed Douglas Edwards & The News was broadcast on videotape at the appropriate time for their Pacific time-zone affiliates.

Video was a lot cheaper than running the kinescope technology that had been the norm up to that point. But tapes were still pricy – an hour’s worth of videotape from 3M ran about $300, which in 1956 money was enough to buy a car, a vacuum cleaner, and three undersized Guatemalan concubines.

This meant that a lot of television shows that were taped for broadcast in other time zones were erased. It made financial sense to reuse the tapes rather than save every broadcast for posterity. Reruns weren’t a thing back then, and no one was thinking ahead to DVD compilations.

The first Eurovision Song Contest was aired live on videotape in 1956, but all that’s left is a scratchy recording off a radio broadcast. A lot of the BBC recordings, including the Beatles’ last live television appearance from 1966 and 106 episodes of Dr. Who are gone. The first ten years of Johnny Carson’s stint as Tonight Show host are almost totally lost to history, as is any copy of the telecast of Super Bowl II.

Like any form of magnetic tape, videotape is subject to deterioration over time. But it’s almost always a lack of desire by anyone involved to maintain a copy in the proverbial vaults that accounts for the gaps in findable television history.

Starting in the 1970s, the race was on for conquering the home video market. This brings us to the inevitable war for supremacy between Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS technology. Everyone knows how that turned out.

When I asked my dad why there were two kinds of videotape on the market, he gruffly replied, “Beta is better; VHS is cheaper.” Simple enough, but not quite the entire story.

Sony introduced the U-matic VCR in 1971, which used ¾-inch tape and looked as though it would be a remarkably unfriendly guest in anyone’s den:

The U-matic was great for professional use, not so much for home use. By the end of the 1970s, no fewer than five different formats were vying to be the in-home standard. VHS and Beta were the two front-runners, but by the mid 80s it was fairly obvious to anyone who ventured out to a movie-renting retail establishment which one was going to win. The TKO that sent Beta into the museum of tech-relics came about for three reasons.

First, my dad was right about the economics. Betamax machines were around $1500 when they entered the market, which is about $300 in 1956 dollars (see above). The tapes were more expensive also, and whether or not the quality was better, the public thinks with its wallet.

The tapes themselves weren’t radically different in quality, though my sketchy memory tells me that I used the Betamax machine to record David Letterman and late-night reruns of Magnum P.I. because the machine itself was far superior to our VHS. It would stop fast-forwarding on a dime, which meant that I developed an innate skill for skipping commercial breaks using my remote control without having to jump back to catch any missed dialog. At 12 years old, I thought that would someday become a marketable skill.

The second Beta-killer factors into the cost. Sony manufactured Beta machines and Beta tapes. JVC licensed VHS technology all over the place, which meant there was a competitive market for VHS. JVC couldn’t charge a ludicrous premium if the Sears in-house brand was going to undercut them by 50 bucks. This little piece of economic history was soon repeated when “IBM-Compatible” machines (which ran MS Dos and later, Windows) flooded the home computer market while only Apple was making Apple-compatible toys.

Finally, and ultimately the mightiest nail keeping the Beta coffin sealed, there was the matter of tape-length.

Beta’s technology allowed for 60 minutes of recording per tape. Fine if you’re big into Marcus Welby, M.D., but not so great if you want to record the Movie of the Week or a ball game. VHS tapes were initially set up for two hours, which meant that when movie studios sought to invent the home-video market, they relied on the longer tape format. While both formats stretched out their capacity with thinner tape, the battle was already won.

From Bing to Beta and into the barrel… videotape technology is soon going to look as quaint and comical as a Victrola looks to us. Everything’s coming up digital now, and there’s really no going back.

So… anyone want to buy an old laserdisc player?

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