What Came Before the VHS?
What Came Before the VHS?
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What Came Before the VHS?

By Christian Roemer

The First Great Home Entertainment War


Whether you’re old enough to remember the reign of the VHS or not, you’re more than likely aware of is existence.


For more than 20 years, the VHS and its player, were THE home theater center piece. From playing home movies to renting the latest Hollywood releases, the VHS provided it all. It truly was the family entertainment hub from the late 70s to the early 2000s.


We all know the release of the DVD in 1997 led to the demise of the VHS, but what came before the VHS? What did people watch prior to 1977?


Let’s take it back to the era of bellbottom jeans and disco jams to see just what happened that led up to the popularity of the VHS.


Film Projectors & Television

Yes, some families were lucky enough to have home film projectors so they could bring the allure of the home movies and cinema into their homes. But 8mm film projectors were never truly mainstream, even when Super 8 became a more affordable and easy to use option.


Rather than spend money and time on film projectors, the majority of the American masses tuned into their televisions for entertainment. Live TV like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and various sitcoms like the Brady Bunch, MASH and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were what most TV-goers watched.


So to see what truly came before the VHS player and the evolution of home entertainment as we know it, we have to look at the first great VCR format war … Betamax vs VHS.


The Introduction of Betamax

Sony is a big time electronic brand name now, but back in 1975 when the Betamax was first released in Japan, it wasn’t even a household name. After six months of success in Japan, Betmax landed in American store shelves as early as November of ’75. It was a technological triumph with specs that nothing could rival at the time, but such cutting-edge tech came with a hefty price tag. Retailing for upwards of $2295 for top-end players, Betamax was for the social elite. A bragging piece for your home entertainment.


A Challenger Approaches

When JVC’s VHS player hit the U.S. market two years later in 1977, it quickly started taking away Betamax faithfuls and hopefuls with its “half the price of Beta” tag. Though still pricey for the time, VHS players costed between $1000 – $1400; a price that would decrease significantly (nearly 80% or more) in less than 8 years.


While the VHS player wasn’t as technologically savvy as the Betamax, the picture quality differences weren’t discernible enough for people to warrant paying twice as much for an expensive player, contrary to Sony’s belief that picture quality was what consumers valued most. The price tag, along with Betamax recording and playback time only consisting of a mere hour of footage, meant the end for the technology before it ever really began.


With so many uncertainties entering the home video market, both the Betamax and VHS player went about capturing consumers with two different approaches. In the end, the cheaper, more shareable and longer recording times of the VHS won out. By 1980, VHS controlled 60% of the market. And by 1981, Beta machines sales had sunk to a lowly 25% of the VCR market as brand loyalty companies such as RCA, Magnavox, Zenith and Panasonic started licensing VHS over Beta.


Obviously, the failure of the Betamax didn’t hold Sony back from future success, particularly in the video game wars of the 90s and 2000s, but it did go to show that being the first to something doesn’t automatically make you the winner.


So, the next time someone asks you what came before the VHS, you can throw some format war knowledge at them. And speaking of VHS, who needs a VHS player today? If you’ve got an old trunk full of tapes, we can help you convert them. Don’t let your memories go to waste!

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