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The Tale of the Tapes: How VHS Ultimately Beat Out Betamax

By Shelby Burr
When was the last time you rented a movie at a Redbox? Do you still buy DVDs or Blu-Rays? Or do you prefer to watch movies on-demand or stream them online? Years before we had to decide between streaming the latest video or taking it home on DVD or Blu-Ray, a format war between Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS began. The battle lasted for more than a decade with neither Betamax or VHS giving up.


Sony, along with other companies, started creating video tape recorders in the 1950s, but it took a pretty penny to purchase this handy-dandy tech. So, Sony released the Betamax in 1975 to avoid destroying the publics wallet. Soon after, JVC launched its VHS and that's when a full-fledged format war was born. Sony’s Betamax machine was way heavier than the VHS deck, and parts for the machine still remained pretty pricey. So, in return, JVC made their deck simpler and cheaper to produce, which allowed VHS to undercut Sony. Still confident, Sony wasn't going to give up that easily. Thus, Betamax transformed to become more simple and offered better picture quality than VHS. Not to mention, its tapes were smaller, too. Sounds great, right? Well, those weren’t the most important selling points for consumers. When Betamax hit the market, its tapes could record only an hour’s worth of programming. On the other hand, VHS tapes allowed people to record for two hours. Later, VHS made it possible to record for 4-6 hours. This helped the decks become the go-to format for recording and watching movies. Unfortunately for Betamax, their superior picture quality mattered less and less, as more people preferred the VHS.


If people wanted to record entire movies and watch their own home videos, JVC figured people would likely want to buy and/or rent movies, too. As a result, JVC turned its attention to building relationships with motion picture companies. This, more than anything else, gave VHS the edge in the format war. By the time Sony finally expanded the length of their tapes, it was essentially too late. VHS was exploding, while Betamax would spend the next decade or so treading water. By 1987, the $5.25 billion VCR market in the U.S. alone was based on the VHS format and VHS would remain the dominant format until the DVD arrived on the market a decade later. So, there you have it! VHS was the victor. That's why your parents have hours worth of recorded VHS tapes of your dance recital, that one Halloween at grandma's and the video that proves your brother actually stole the last piece of cake at your Mom's birthday and not you.
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