by Marc Wielage with Rod Woodcock

Originally published in issue #5 of Videofax, ©1988 by Marc Wielage [updated slightly in March of 2003]; all rights reserved.

“Oh, somewhere there’s a VCR
  that’s been a huge success,
That format now is thriving
        and is known as VHS;
And somewhere tapes are playing
        and films are rented out.
But there’s no joy at Sony…
        Mighty Beta has struck out.

— after Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s immortal “Casey at the Bat”

SONY MAKING VHS. The very idea was anathema to Betaphiles around the world. Since the dawn of the Beta format in 1975, Akio Morita, the proud patriarch of Japan’s most famous electronics company, insisted it would never happen. To Sony, VHS was little more than an upstart enemy — a mere technological kluge that copied their basic design, changing only the size and shape of the cassette and the internal mechanism. But Mr. Morita never envisioned the tumultuous events that were to unfold over the next decade that would see Sony’s total domination of the home video market crumble and fade like ashes in a dying fire.

  Starting initially with the LV-1901 console TV/recorder, introduced in the U.S. in November of 1975, and following up with the SL-7200 deck in the Spring of the following year, Sony created an entirely new consumer electronics category — the home VCR — and ushered in a revolutionary way of distributing feature films. Sony’s electronic wonder brought with it the concept of “time-shifting” — watching TV shows when you want to see them, not just when they’re broadcast — which was a revolutionary concept that we now take completely for granted. Directly or indirectly, Sony’s Beta format had an impact on every one of you reading this today.

But how did it all go wrong? How could Beta, recognized widely as the “superior” technical format, be vanquished by JVC’s VHS? Many industry pundits had their own reasons: “It was the short playing time of Beta that really did them in,” was the most oft-cited opinion. “Sony was too egotistical — they thought they alone could make the format succeed, and their pride always got in their way,” chided several experts looking for a psychological angle. This led to another theory: “Sony never licensed enough manufacturers to make Beta.” Still other experts pointed out that “Beta machines never had the features and styling of the competition.” And others insisted: “Marketing... it all boils down to marketing.”

The truth behind Beta’s failure involves all of these obvious factors, and maybe a few more. We’ve taken a long, hard look at Beta for nearly a decade and a half. We’ve lived with the machines day in and day out; we’ve owned virtually every Sony U.S. model known to man (and even some of the rare Japanese models never released in North America); we’ve poured out thousands upon thousands of dollars on every type and length of blank and pre-recorded Beta tapes imaginable. But the final story is long and tortuous. Attempting to go into every conceivable detail to try to analyze what went wrong with Sony’s efforts would require a book-long epic. No doubt it will be a case study to be discussed and dissected at length in schools of higher learning in both the U.S. and the Far East for many years to come — a textbook model of all the mistakes and wrong turns that can happen in the consumer electronics business. Rod Woodcock has essayed the subject several times in past columns and articles in Video magazine, and provided much of the source material for the story that fol­lows. Both of us have been working on what we hope will be the complete, unabashed history of home video, to be published at a later date. [Still not done as of 2003 — but we continue to muse on the idea.]

For now, what follows is an abbreviated version of a difficult story full of myths, colorful figures, egos run wild, technological miracles, marketing shortsightedness, and the brilliance for which Sony is well-known. The final chapter on Beta has yet to be written; for now, consider this merely to be the introduction.


The Sony executive looked at me warily. In heavily — accented English, he explained, patiently, as if to a schoolchild: “We think adding remote pause to our video recorder would be a mistake. People might over — use it and create technical problems, wearing out their video heads too soon. No. This would be a bad idea.”

The year was 1978, and I was talking to a Sony vice-president at my very first Consumer Electronics Show about what I per­ceived was a short-sighted attitude in their product-planning department. I gestured wildly. “But look at that new machine over there from RCA! They’ve got remote pause and a built-in timer! And audio dub, too!” The executive looked bored. “Having separate timer allows the consumer to use it for other purposes. And not everyone needs timer. We do not force you to buy one.”

This was getting nowhere fast. I began to plead. “Are you saying that RCA, for all their years of marketing expertise, doesn’t know the home video market as well as you do?” I glared at him, almost out of breath. The Sony executive smiled icily. “We think we know best.”

I don’t know where this clown is working today, but we can only pray it’s not in home video.

The issues of the remote pause control and built-in timer were obvious to anyone who studied the products in any detail. Each feature was simple to produce and cost pennies on the assembly line. RCA was also the first to realize the importance of multi-event timers with the VCT-400, which could record four different events over a one-week period. Although this product ultimately proved to be unreliable because of the lack of a power back-up for the clock (a flaw later rectified with the VCT- 400X), consumers took to this new development instantly. Multi-event timer programming quickly became a standard feature of deluxe VHS decks, but perhaps because of a NIH (“not invented here”) philosophy, it took Sony nearly two years to market a multi-event timer-equipped VCR, which was their SL-5600.

Sony often took a back seat in inaugurating other convenience features, too, beginning with audio/video inputs. These jacks were deliberately omitted from the original SL-7200 Beta deck in order to give the more expensive LV-1901 console a competitive advantage. Eventually, consumer demand forced them to reluctantly add this feature with the revised SL-7200A. Another feature was audio dub, which was offered on virtually every VCR Sony released in all other parts of the world, including the Japanese versions of the 7200, but it was years before it was offered in the U.S. Again, the overwhelming opinion was that one more knob might be too much for our simple American minds to manage.

Anyone in the audio industry was also quick to see the superiority of the front-load­ing cassette hatch, which made top-loading audio decks obsolete almost overnight. This first appeared on Sharp’s VC-6800 in the fall of 1980 and quickly became a standard fea­ture in every VCR on the market, regardless of price. Sony followed with a front- loading Betamax a year later. The same problem repeated itself with solenoid-assisted transports and full-function remote control, which first appeared in industrial and professional video decks in the early 1970s. Despite the ergonomic elegance of solenoid transports, it was Mitsubishi, not Sony, who first introduced a consumer VCR with this feature in mid-1979, with their trend-setting HS-300. Two full years elapsed before Sony finally offered a solenoid-transport VCR, the SL-2500, which also boasted full wireless infrared remote.

In all fairness, we must point out that since the beginning, Sony was virtually alone in devoting time and money for R&D on new developments for Beta, while VHS had the considerable resources of Hitachi, JVC, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, and the others in the VHS family. Still, Sony’s failure to realize the importance of these features continued to snowball well into the mid-1980’s, and by then, it was much too late.


The issue of longer playing time was perhaps the very first impasse that came up in the earliest known discussions between RCA and Sony. Originally, back in the early design stage in 1973 and 1974, Beta was touted as a “miniature U-Matic recorder for the home.” Since 3/4” was limited to a maximum of 60 minutes, it was widely believed inside Sony that one hour was an acceptable limitation. After all, that’s the average length of an American TV show. Needless to say, they were wrong.

When RCA had first examined the early pre-release Beta prototypes during this embryonic period, they asked whether a longer playing time was possible. Nonplussed, the Sony engineers responded that it would someday be possible to narrow the video track pitch and cut the tape speed in half to produce a recording with twice the playing time. But, they warned, the picture quality would be quite poor, and further research and development would be needed to improve it before it could be marketed. Sony’s marketing people reportedly told RCA to take the one-hour Betamax or leave it. They left it. About 18 months later, in early 1977, RCA went to Matsushita and convinced JVC’s parent firm to perform the same half-speed trick with the existing VHS format, which was already a two-hour format, much to the protestations of JVC’s design engineers.

Even without the VHS speed change, this format held a big advantage over Beta. The VHS cassette was about 50% larger than the Beta cassette, and could hold considerably more tape-approximately 250 meters in a T­120, instead of the 150-meters in a one-hour K-60 (later L-500) Beta cassette. The linear speed of VHS was also slightly slower than Beta-roughly 1.3 inches per second for SP compared to 1.6 inches per second in Beta I — which allowed further savings in tape costs. The final result was a much more economical system than the original Beta mode, and this ultimately proved to be Sony’s Achilles’ Heel.

RCA’s theory was that a four-hour playing time would be significant, since this was the average time of a broadcast football game. Also important were such “fripperies” as a remote wired pause control and a built-in timer, which helped them win thousands of customers in 1978. RCA’s products quickly out-sold JVC’s, who had refused to partici­pate in the “bastardized” LP mode because they felt it compromised the performance of their original invention. It seems clear, how­ever, that left on their own, without the benefit of RCA’s marketing acumen, JVC would probably have failed even more spectacularly than Sony.

The moment RCA’s “SelectaVision” VHS deck was announced in the Summer of 1977, Sony wasted no time in rushing to the market a revised version of the SL-7200, christened the SL-8200. This machine refined the origi­nal Beta deck by adding a capstan-servo circuit to improve stability and two record/ playback speeds: X-1 (later BI) was the new term for the original one-hour mode, and X-2 (later called BII) was the new half-speed mode, designed originally for economical time-shifting. Much to the chagrin of videophiles, Bll quickly became the standard mode for the format, resulting in a visible loss of picture quality, particularly with pre-recorded cassettes.

To placate the original Beta owners who felt abandoned with their now-obsolete BI-only machines, Sony offered mechanical multi-cassette changers, which allowed lengthy unattended timer recordings. Both the original AG-120 and the improved electri­cally-powered AG-300 could hold up to three videocassettes at a time, with a fourth in the VCR, allowing up to eight hours of recording. In desperation, Sony continued to make com­panion changers for several VCRs over the next five years. But all of the changers suffered from reliability problems and consumer apathy, and the idea was eventually abandoned, causing no small embarrassment.

By late 1978, Sony unveiled two more defenses in the battle for video speed supremacy: the first was the thin 16-micron L-750 tape, which allowed a 50% longer recording than conventional 20-micron L-500 cassettes. This was a major breakthrough, and one about which they felt particularly keen. A year later, they followed with the L-830, a delicate, tissue paper-like tape only 13-microns thick, which provided 5 hours of recording at BIll, the even-slower speed that debuted in mid-1979. Sony engineers knew that the VHS transport’s M-load design placed considerably more stress on the tape load path during playback and recording, and would probably wreck a thin tape in a matter of seconds. They convinced themselves that the thin (and costly) Beta tapes alone could undo the damage done in the early stages of Beta’s design. But, like the unsuccessful changers, the thin tapes never were able to capture the fancy of indifferent consumers and cynical retailers, and ultimately, Beta lost the battle for speed supremacy.

With our usual hindsight, we can offer a few observations about the issue of playing time. Sony should have immediately realized their error in underestimating the immense importance of the American “bigger, longer, better” mentality. Good or bad, it was this key factor that made the biggest impression in the minds of American consumers, and more importantly, retailers. Rather than release the SL-8200 in the fall of 1977, Sony would have been far wiser to unveil a slightly larger Beta cassette shell with dimensions roughly the same as the VHS cassette, along with the dual-mode BI/BII operation. By doing so, they would have met the challenge of VHS head on and moved ahead with future developments such as thinner tape. The standard Beta cassette could still be used for camcorders and other portable products, effectively becoming the “Beta-C” format where playing time is unimportant.

What would Sony’s larger VHS-ish Beta cassette have looked like, had Sony opted to make the switch back in 1978, when it mattered? Sony’s Broadcast video division now makes such a cassette, in the form of the BCT-90 Betacam tape. This giant-sized shell holds 4-1/2 times as much tape as an L-500 cassette, enabling Betacam users to get a full 90 minutes of programming on a single cassette. Translated to the consumer arena, this cassette (or a more reasonably-sized equivalent) would have given Sony a 4-1/2 hour BI tape, or 9 hours at BII; more than enough to compete with VHS. Plus, Sony could still have hung on to the smaller shell, using it for portables or shorter program material, since it would still have been able to fit inside the larger machines, just as VHS-C cassettes still function in standard decks (with adapters).

Of course, there’s no way to predict what JVC’s reaction would have been back in 1978, had Sony adopted this larger shell. Perhaps JVC would have retaliated with a larger VHS shell of their own, and the history of the format wars would have been written in salvos of larger and incompatible cassettes, rather than slower and slower tape speeds.


A lot of press has been devoted to the basic design differences between Beta and VHS. Sony claims to have invented the M-loading transport during R&D on U-Matic back in the late 1960’s. This idea was so named because the tape path resembled a capital “M,” wrapping tightly around the video head by a series of guide pins. Sony engineers were never able to overcome the inherent stress and mechanical problems of this system, and later abandoned it in favor of U-loading; which pulled a large circular loop of tape out of the cassette and wrapped it completely around the head. After a Herculean effort, JVC’s engineers were eventually able to perfect M-loading, and insisted that although the M-load transport did place slightly more stress on the tape, the mechanism itself was less complex to build than Sony’s and was more reliable.

JVC’s claims to the contrary, Sony held a major technical advantage over VHS for many years, simply by virtue of the fact that U-loading kept the tape threaded at all times around the video heads. This allowed much faster and more precise tape cueing and editing — a critical requirement for videophiles and industrial users. Sony’s design had the drawback of wearing down the video heads and tape slightly during high-speed winding. The designers were quick to point out that a slight air-pocket between the heads and tape made this wear almost negligible. Nonetheless, it soon became clear that Beta tapes were more susceptible to scratching during fast-forwarding and rewinding, which led many videophiles to use stand-alone rewinder accessories — a practice we still recommend to this day. Sad to say, with the exception of a couple of cheap Sanyo VCRs, virtually no Beta deck ever offered the ability to wind tapes inside the shell, which is standard for the vast majority of VHS decks.

But the M-load system was still far from perfect. Early VHS decks were achingly slow to operate, taking nearly five seconds to produce a picture after the play button was first depressed. This was improved in the late 1970’s with the introduction of Panasonic’s industrial NV-8200, the first VHS deck with a partial-load transport. This kept the tape pulled out slightly from the cassette during all wind modes, which eventually allowed the use of a real-time counter (reading pulses from the tape’s control track) and also provid­ing somewhat faster playback cueing than conventional designs. Within a few years, many consumer VHS decks adopted variations of the same idea.

By mid-1979, Sony engineers came up with a major ace in the hole: high-speed picture search, originally termed “Videola” but later renamed “BetaScan” (after a lawsuit by motion picture editing manufacturer Moviola). They were confident that VHS would never be able to provide this feature, which was first introduced in Sony’s SL-5400. Much to Sony’s surprise, Mitsubishi engineers managed to duplicate the feature a few months later in their HS-300. This exciting consumer VCR was the first to offer a full-solenoid transport and completely wireless remote control. By 1980, virtually every VCR on the market had picture search, which was arguably the most significant innovation since slow-speed recording.

The following year, Sony revised the original Beta transport with a new, streamlined design, which they felt would be much more popular with consumers. This new transport was first used in the SL-2500: a sleek, beautiful VCR which nearly became Sony’s Edsel. It seems that the engineers, in their haste to create the world’s thinnest VCR, made the fatal flaw of using lightweight plastic parts, which lacked the stamina of the heavier-duty metal compo­nents used in previous models. The biggest disaster was caused by the molded plastic hinges used for the folding tape guides in the transport. These delicate hinges couldn’t take the day-in, day-out stresses of repeated use, and often snapped off, resulting in tape jams. This VCR’s thin “pancake” motors also led to problems in generating enough torque to drive the tape. Both problems were eventually solved, but not before massive consumer complaints flooded Sony repair stations with defective machines. Eventually, the problem was solved with a revised design that used sturdier parts.

As if to add insult to injury, VHS was eventually able to match Sony’s edge in U-load rapid cueing. Akai developed the “Quick-Start” transport in 1987, which essentially provided a Beta-like load technique for VHS, keeping the tape threaded up at all times around the video head drum. Toshiba is now introducing similar VHS decks, and others are sure to follow. Just as with all of Sony’s technological breakthroughs, VHS was always able to keep up with Beta, step-by-step, and eventually overtake them.


For all the problems in their consumer line, Sony’s SLO-series of industrial Beta decks were generally well-received and actually enjoyed a brief, though successful reign in the 1/2" pro business. Starting with the SLO-320 in late 1978, and climaxing with the SLO-383 editing deck, Sony’s heavy-duty 1/2" VCRs were exceptionally well-built, almost matching the stamina of their best-selling 3/4" decks used in broadcast television facilities. Unfortunately, Sony occasionally made these decks too good, creating behind-the-scenes disputes between the consumer and professional VCR divisions.

As sales of Sony’s consumer Beta’s declined, the trend towards offering more so­phisticated VCRs began to place Sony’s consumer and industrial divisions at odds. Between 1977 and 1984, Sony sold a lot of BI industrial Betas, which were bigger, better, more heavy-duty, and offered better picture quality than the consumer machines. But when SuperBeta appeared in 1985, and VHS became even more entrenched as the preferred consumer format, sales of industrial Betas began to decline. Worse yet, the consumer and industrial divisions now found themselves selling Beta to the same market: the high-end consumer videophile and the industrial user.

To court the videophile, Sony brought back the BI speed to the consumer format, adding SuperBeta and christening it BI-S. But while the trend-setting SL-HF900, introduced in Japan in January of 1985, had the BI-S speed (along with the jog/shuttle knob, another feature that was quickly copied by Sony’s VHS competitors) Sony omitted it from the U.S. version, apparently in a deliberate move to make it less competitive with non-Super BI Betas from their industrial division.

Around the same time, Sony introduced a new slim-line industrial VCR in Japan called the GCS-50 — an editing deck with flying-erase heads and BI-S for superior picture quality. Inexplicably, the designers opted not to make this VCR compatible with their previous U-Matic equipment and controllers, (or the SLO-383 editing Betamax) giving it a unique editing interface. Once again, U.S. marketing execs deliberately omitted BI from the domestic model, giving the excuse that that they didn’t want to create any compatibility problems between the new BI-S mode and the older standard BI decks.

None of these opinions gelled when, just a few months later, Sony’s consumer division released the SL-HF1000. This was perhaps the most feature-laden consumer VCR ever built, which at last boasted the new BI-Super-High-Band mode, again pushing the luminance carrier up ever-so-slightly to provide still better performance than “standard” SuperBeta. Even more intriguing, the 1000 was equipped with flying-erase heads and editing features, making it above and away a superior value to the GCS-50.

These engineering problems at Sony happened more often than one might think. Sony frequently divided their R&D forces into separate groups to work on projects that could have better solved by leaving them to work together. As an example, when Sony introduced the mid-priced SL-2710 in 1983, it offered 9-event/21-day programming; at the time, their top deluxe VCR was the SL-2700, which only offered 4-event/14-day programming, which made no sense. Like many other Japanese manufacturers, Sony also had a bad habit of inaugurating an important feature one year, then forgetting about it the next. Such innovations as super-high-speed picture search, improved timer programming techniques, and logical placement of transport controls seemed to change every year, solely for the sake of change. Sony occasionally was guilty of wasting their R&D efforts with impractical but technologically-interesting VCRs like the SL-2410, a VCR equipped with a voice synthesizer chip that “talked” the user through the timer programming steps. And despite the modest sales of the original console Betamax, Sony persisted with the idea more than a decade later with a similar 8mm console model. Sony seemed destined to repeat their mistakes with each new video format.


When the BII mode was initially introduced in the U.S. with the SL-8200, Sony was smart enough to include the BI mode for compatibility with the previous 7200 deck and 1901 console. Less than a year later, however, Sony released a BII-only deck, the SL-8600, which was smaller and more attractive than previous models, and at last, provided the built-in timer and remote pause control that consumers demanded; other, similar Beta VCRs soon followed from Sanyo, Toshiba, and Zenith. But these machines antagonized all the original Beta I owners, who were convinced that Sony was deserting them in a desperate attempt to keep up with their competition. Eventually, consumer complaints were loud enough that Sony was forced to include all-mode compatibility with every consumer deck that followed, but the damage was still done.

JVC, on the other hand, maintained a tight grip on the compatibility issue of their VHS format. They insisted all machines bearing the trademark could play SP tapes, which proved to be of key importance once the tape rental market got off the ground. VHS had compatibility problems of their own, however, particularly in the area of special effects. Once three-speed VCRs became popular, many VHS manufacturers, particularly JVC, were quick to drop all special-effects modes from the LP mode. VHS owners complained (and still complain, to this day) about being short-changed, since many felt that the LP mode represented the best compromise between performance and economy. But their arguments fell on deaf ears, and the LP mode soon became an outcast, supported as a record and play speed only by Panasonic and Hitachi, and often without any special effects. Some companies didn’t know which way to turn. Mitsubishi’s first VHS decks had only SP and EP, but they added LP later on.

The VHS SLP mode was another big question mark in the area of compatibility. Although JVC was responsible for perfecting the six-hour mode (which they called “EP”), officials privately commented that tapes made at this speed were intended only for delayed viewing. They specifically did not guarantee that SLP tapes made on one VCR would play on another-which indirectly admitted interchange problems in the slow-speed mode. One reason for this incompatibility was the problem of belt-driven video head drums and tape capstans. Belt-drives were notoriously inaccurate when it came to speed stability; rubber belts could stretch and loosen over a period of a few months or years, resulting in tapes recorded at speeds so far out of range, no other VCR could ever hope to play them back properly. Eventually, this problem was mostly solved by an indus­try-wide switch to direct-drive motors in the early 1980’s, but SLP tapes are still somewhat difficult to “track,” even on the best VCRs.. (The lone exception is Panasonic’s NV-8950, a unique VHS deck fitted with special piezo video heads, which automatically adjust themselves to track virtually any videocassette recording. Not widely available, this VCR faded from the market around 1983, reportedly due to the cost and difficulty of making the piezo heads.)

Beta didn’t escape from the demons of tape interchange, either. When the BII mode was first invented, technical design compro­mises led to the problem of adjacent track interference, which led to a peculiar “wavy line” effect in one or more corners of the picture. Adjusting the tracking control could minimize this interference, but never eliminate it completely. Videophiles christened this characteristic flaw “The Fingerprint Effect,” since it resembled a human fingerprint-like smear in the image. Because of the less-complicated signal processing techniques used in the original BI mode, this problem has never been visible in Beta recordings at this speed.

Things only got worse once Beta Hi-Fi arrived on the market in early 1982. Most magazines extolled the virtues of Beta Hi-Fi’s wide dynamic range and great frequency response, but sharp-eared videophiles were dismayed to discover the problem of “Hi-Fi buzz,” technically known as 60-cycle intercarrier interference, where slight visual tracking instabilities were decoded by the audio circuits as a nasty, ever-present hum in the stereo soundtrack. This problem was rarely significant when tapes were played on the same machine on which they were recorded, but became readily apparent when different VCRs were involved. Minor tape damage, such as dropouts or creases, resulted in horrible audio distortion, such as loud pops and bursts of static. Circuit refinements reduced this problem with the introduction of the SL-2700 in late 1983, but it has never disappeared completely.

VHS Hi-Fi, too, had problems of its own. Because JVC opted to use an extra pair of rotating video heads to record and playback the audio carriers, (necessitated by a lack of available bandwidth between the luminance and 629 kHz color subcarrier) the electronic design of their VCRs were initially more costly and complex. JVC was also embarrassed to discover that, in certain areas, AM radio transmissions could leak into the Hi-Fi playback circuits, resulting in terrible crosstalk and noise. VHS Hi-Fi was also susceptible to the same vulnerabilities as Beta Hi-Fi, particularly in the area of tape scratches and creases. On the plus side, in our experience, VHS Hi-Fi tapes appear to playback with fewer problems than the average Beta Hi-Fi cassette, particularly with used rental cassettes, though we would still consider neither to represent true high-fidelity.

Mode compatibility was challenged again in early 1985, when Sony modified the luminance bandwidth of the Beta format to create SuperBeta, which produced nearly 25% more resolution than the standard BII mode. This extra emphasis led to slight highlight streaking when SuperBeta tapes were played back on older Beta decks, but Sony did have the foresight to raise the luminance bandwidth slightly when Beta Hi-Fi was reduced. As a result, all Beta Hi-Fi machines could play back SuperBeta tapes without any visual flaws. Publicly, JVC chided Sony for Beta’s lack of compatibility, again insisting that VHS had, and would always have, complete compatibility between all machines in the SP mode. But privately, JVC knew that they had to strike back and show the world, once and for all, who could produce the best picture quality.

The answer came in June of 1987 when JVC demonstrated Super VHS, an advanced new system that leapfrogged beyond the picture quality of Beta. Like SuperBeta, S-VHS (as it became known) was able to push the luminance carrier to dizzying heights, thanks to a new video head design and a new, high-coercitivity tape. While S-VHS’ pictures were breathtaking, JVC admitted that S-VHS tapes were almost totally unwatchable when played on standard VHS machines. Also, in a behind-the-scenes move probably motivated by JVC’s long-standing disdain for the LP speed, as inventors and licensees of S-VHS, they dictated that the new format would never be configured for LP. This effectively killed the LP mode entirely, though as JVC pointed out, the new S-VHS EP mode produced far better picture quality than LP ever did. Still, this was of small consolation to loyal VHS owners.

Despite the initial success of S-VHS, Sony wasn’t going to go down without a fight. In the Summer of 1987, Sony previewed the new ED “Extended Definition” Beta format, which surpassed S-VHS’ performance by the use of metal-particle videotape and refined signal processing. While ED Beta appears to again have made Sony a winner in the picture quality department, most experts agree that at this late stage, it’s a Pyrrhic victory, at best. Even more troubling, at press-time [1988] Sony’s U.S. marketing department has made the decision to set the retail cost on the top-of-the-line ED Beta deck at a whopping $3300, which is nearly a thousand dollars more than the original Japanese price. ED Beta’s tapes are equally expensive at nearly $20 per L­500. Early reports indicate that this tactic may only serve to antagonize the few remaining Beta loyalists and possibly drive them into Super VHS, which is considerably less expensive.


No story on Beta would be complete without a discussion of the software aspects of the home video business. At the dawn of the home video age, in late 1975, nobody could have predicted the incredible success of the movie rental business. The first real home video software on the market began with Andre Blay’s Magnetic Video, which licensed fifty feature film titles from 20th Century-Fox in late 1977. Originally, full-speed tapes were offered for both Beta and VHS, along with BII for Beta, but by 1978 BI was dropped entirely. BII had become the dominant Beta mode, bringing with it a marginal loss in quality that infuriated Beta purists.

In the five years that followed, the video rental business enjoyed sky-high growth, with sales to dealers going through the roof. Hollywood executives rubbed their hands with glee, since this totally new market en­abled them to make profits from films previously looked upon as worthless bombs. Through the rental industry, home video ultimately transformed into a software-driven market: many consumers decided to buy VCRs simply to watch the latest films, and not for time-shifting. This caught a lot of people by surprise, Sony included. During this embryonic period, Sony made a token effort to keep the studios interested in offering all titles on Beta, but because of all the factors relating to the format’s hardware problems, dealers were more and more reluctant to stock Beta cassettes.

In 1982, Sony made an all-out push to convince the studios to get behind their newest bombshell: Beta Hi-Fi. They touted Hi-Fi’s many advantages over the low-fidelity split-track Dolby B stereo used in all VHS releases at the time. Sony officials smugly predicted that VHS would never be able to match their achievement because of subtle differences in signal processing between the two systems, and promised software firms that Beta Hi-Fi would be a hit. For a time, it was. Throughout 1983, Beta Hi-Fi was well-received by both dealers and the public, but perhaps because of the unexpected success of budget-priced VHS decks, Beta sales soon leveled off to their pre-Hi-Fi numbers. Less than a year later, JVC did the impossible: they took the wraps off their similarly-named VHS Hi-Fi system, which altered Beta’s design by using two extra video heads to record the FM audio signals. Once again, Sony was back to square one.

During the early 1980’s, Beta started a gradual decline in the software business. Duplicators began making drastic cutbacks on slave machines, with major companies like Bell & Howell installing 1000 or more VHS decks for every 100 Beta machines. Dealers began dumping pre-recorded Beta cassettes by the truckload, and happy Beta customers quickly snapped up these bargains, which were often sold for as little as $5 per cassette. But the Betaphiles’ glee was short-lived when they discovered, much to their chagrin, that most video stores had begun selling and renting only VHS software. In less than five years, pre-recorded Beta cassettes had become “the 8-track of the 80s” — a cruel misnomer, since 8-track cartridge’s demise was caused mainly by mediocre fidelity and an inferior technical design — but the ignorant label persisted in the consumer press.

With Beta orders dwindling, the Hollywood studios wasted little time in making a momentous decision: RCA/Columbia was the first to announce they would be cutting back on Beta releases. [Ironically, Sony bought Columbia Studios in 1990.] Henceforth, only the biggest box-office films would come out on Beta; older catalogue items and cult titles would be released only on VHS. Sony went through the motions of setting up a short-lived direct-sales campaign designed to help desperate customers order Beta titles through a toll-free number. Sony even went so far as to establish a video software label of their own, specifically to release titles on Beta. But this soon became merely a conduit for music video releases, and Sony was later forced to release these titles on VHS, due to retailer demand.

By 1987, MCA made a similar announcement cutting back on Beta releases, but with less fanfare than Columbia. By 1988, this policy had become de rigueur for the industry, and the flood of Beta software had turned into a trickle. This forced many Beta owners to buy VHS decks strictly for movie rental, and indeed, most surveys showed that 90% of most Beta owners also owned at least one other VCR, usually a VHS deck. And without any software support, no average person would ever want to invest in a new Beta deck. As a software format, Beta was virtually extinct.

Looking back on Beta’s software problems, it’s difficult to say what Sony could have done to have overcome the inevitable. Someone with exceptional insight might have been able to predict what would happen with home video rentals back in the mid ‘70’s; we know we couldn’t. One possibility might have been for Sony to adopt the tactic tried by Cartrivision four years before: licensing several hundred movies and marketing them directly through Sony dealers. They might even have tried Cartrivision’s approach of sales-only and rental-only titles, using non-rewinding cassettes for the latter. It’s impossible to say for certain whether this might have worked during Beta’s infancy, but it could have at least established a foothold for a more expan­sive move into software as the years went on.


At the dawn of the consumer video age, dating back to the earliest meetings between representatives of the Beta and VHS camps, Sony made a major tactical error in assuming that their marketing expertise alone was strong enough to make Beta the dominant format. We feel that this was the single biggest blunder that directly led to the Beta’s downfall. By refusing to acquiesce to RCA’s demands for longer-playing time, Sony lost the support of the number-one TV manufacturer in the U.S. By refusing to license Hitachi to make Beta, for fear of alienating Matsushita, Sony ultimately wound up losing support from both firms. Without the support of Matsushita and RCA, Sony could never recover from the lost momentum. Keep in mind that all of these events occurred before a single Beta or VHS deck was ever sold to consumers. Once these seeds were sewn, the end of the battle was essentially over before it began.

Without the backing from manufacturers, there would never be as many Beta decks on the market as VHS. By the same token, VHS held the edge in sheer number of recognizable brand-names in the U.S. Having more manufacturers also meant that more dealers would carry VHS than Beta-another crucial advantage that proved to be a large nail in Sony’s coffin. During this early phase in the home video industry, Sony made another tactical error in refusing to expand their dealer network, denying many retailers the opportunity to sell Beta, which forced them to turn to the enemy camp in search of profits.

There were other issues as well, such as cosmetics and cabinet styling. The original circa-1976 Beta decks were large, bulky units weighing well over 40 Ibs., which required a lot of space and proper ventilation. Less than a year later, JVC’s original VHS deck shaved more than ten pounds off Sony’s machine, and was also considerably more attractive. But it was RCA who really pushed “sex appeal” in their VCRs, making a strong attempt to make their products attractive to a wide range of people, not just the typical male buyer.

Price was, and still is, a major factor in VCR sales. Sony’s Morita had long expressed his lack of faith in market research, and cited hit products such as the Walkman and the Trinitron TV as examples of products others said would never sell. But it was RCA’s research that showed considerable consumer resistance to VCR pricing over $1000. By barely breaking even on their original VBT-200 and selling it for $995, RCA was able to make video recorders more affordable to a wider group of customers in a considerably short time. Eventually, when manufacturing costs dropped, RCA was able to hold the $1000 figure and make a decent profit, while Sony was forced to take a deep breath and slash prices in an effort to stay competitive.

RCA’s drive and ambition extended to advertising, as well. While Sony’s early enthusiasm produced some memorable campaigns, such as Count Dracula using his Sony Betamax to watch daytime shows, RCA’s marketing prowess soon kicked into high gear. All the early home VCR ads sold home video as a concept, but it was RCA who pushed their name the strongest.

RCA’s success annoyed Sony, but it had an even stronger effect on Zenith, then the number-two TV manufacturer in the U.S. Zenith had signed a five-year contract with Sony as their OEM (original equipment manufacturer) source, and was mortified by the immense success of their arch-rivals in Indianapolis. Zenith strived valiantly to keep up with RCA by trying to compete solely on price, even going so far as releasing several no-frills BIll-only Beta decks, which cut corners by leaving out various circuit boards and other components. But Zenith was ultimately bested by Sanyo, whose Beta VCRs were the cheapest imaginable in the early 1980’s, making them a top-selling brand for a brief period. It was all over by late 1983, when Zenith jumped ship and abandoned Beta in favor of VHS, using Matsushita as an OEM source. Zenith insiders have refused to go into the specifics of exactly why this came about, but the overall impression is that the straw that broke their backs was Sony’s habit of selling VCRs to them at one price, then dropping the cost of the identical model sold under the Sony brand-name a few months later.

Sony’s relations with their other Beta licensees weren’t very hospitable, either. They didn’t always trust them enough to keep them informed of new technological developments, which sometimes led to embarrassing situations. The worst of these was the infamous Marantz fiasco in January of 1982, when this U.S. based-firm introduced a linear split-track Dolby C stereo VCR, with considerable hoopla. (Projection TV manufacturer Advent showed a similar machine around the same time, which failed to reach the market.) The Sanyo-built Marantz VR-200 was virtually obsolete before it was ever shipped, once Beta Hi-Fi was demonstrated less than six months later. With great embarrassment, Marantz ultimately dropped the Beta format entirely and went with VHS instead — a problem which could have been completely avoided had Sony only “come clean” with Marantz officials earlier.

Another curious incident took place back in the summer of 1979. Sanyo, previously known only for their low-ball, inexpensive VCRs, demonstrated the QC-77, a super-deluxe Beta VCR with wireless remote control, still frame and slow-motion capability, solenoid operated transport and many other features far more advanced than Sony’s. For reasons never explained, it never appeared on the U.S. market, though it enjoyed brisk sales in Europe and Japan. Was it too advanced for its time? Perhaps. Its failure to appear in the U.S. may have been because of pressure from Sony Tokyo, but the full story may never be known.

The increased pressure from the VHS camp produced some strange reactions from Sony. Beginning in 1983, Sony began to flood the market with too many Beta models, leading to considerable confusion among both consumers and dealers. At one point, there were nearly a dozen Sony Betamaxes available, some varying in cost by only $10, with only the slimmest of visible changes. In retrospect, we feel that Sony should have had no more than five models placed at specific price ranges, each tailor-made for a precise market — economy, mid-priced, deluxe, super-deluxe, and videophile — which would have simplified and streamlined their product lineup.

The issue of portable VCR and camcorder marketing almost deserves an article by itself. Suffice it to say that Sony met considerable resistance to the original Betamovie camcorder concept, which first hit the market in May of 1983. In an effort to make it smaller and lighter, Sony deliberately designed Betamovie without an electronic viewfinder and the ability to playback its own tapes. Consumers stayed away from it in droves, and eventually, many Beta owners began buying full-featured VHS cameras and portables and, later, VHS camcorders.


For many, the sign that Beta was in its death throes finally came in early January of 1988.  After initially denying the rumors, Sony finally announced they would be marketing VHS-format VCRs in Japan and Europe by the Spring of 1988. These machines would be OEM’d from Hitachi, but Sony planned to take over actual manufacturing of the machines later on this year. The first Sony VHS machines destined for the U.S. are due to arrive in October [1988], though there’s no word yet as to who will make them.

Sony spokespeople have been quick to insist that the addition of VHS is being done just to satisfy many dealer requests, and that their ongoing development of Beta won’t cease. Insiders confirm this and have gone so far as to predict that Sony’s involvement in VHS, at least for the first year or so, will be mainly in the low-and mid-priced area. They see the high-end market as being dominated by ED-Beta and other future developments, and so far, we’ve been told not to expect a Sony S-VHS anytime soon.

In many ways, it’s a shame. Our top contacts at many of the major electronics firms agree that if Sony were willing to seriously enter the VHS market instead of just giving it lip service, they might well become the number three or even the number two VCR maker in the world. It’s exciting to speculate on a fully-featured, state-of-the-art Sony consumer S-VHS deck-say, an editing machine with Beta-style loading, a jog/shuttle knob and flying-erase heads-a high-performance machine which could easily blow away such comparatively meager competition as JVC’s HR-S7000 and Mitsubishi’s HS-423. Such a VCR, providing the best features of past Beta machines with the quality and compatibility of VHS, would undoubtedly be a top-seller. Sony might even go a step further and sell companion ED-Beta and 8mm decks with similar features, allowing uncompromised interformat editing at an affordable price. The mind boggles at the possibilities. But Sony’s pride and their continuing reliance on 8mm and ED-Beta may prevent them from entering the S-VHS market,-no matter how profitable it may be. [Sony eventually became one of the top three VHS manufacturing and marketing firms during the 1990s, and did successfully create several very good S-VHS decks, both consumer and industrial.]

We’ve occasionally daydreamed as to how very different the world of consumer electronics would have been if we could harness Marty McFly’s time machine from Back to the Future and bring an SL-HF1000 and a JVC HR-S7000 S-VHS deck to Mr. Morita’s office in 1974 and show him what was in store for Sony and the Beta format in the decade and a half that were to follow.  No doubt even Morita would be astonished by the great technological achievements of both Sony and JVC over the years. In retrospect, though, even JVC would have to admit that the competition between the two formats has been good for the entire industry. If Sony’s Beta had never existed, we might never have seen such developments as VHS HQ, VHS Hi-Fi and Super VHS. For all we know, we’d be using slightly spiffier, less-expensive versions of the old, clunky HR-3300!

But enough conjecture. For now, we’d like to make a fond farewell to Beta. While it may survive a few more years, Sony’s struggle to make Beta achieve mass-market success has ended, with VHS the winner and still champion. But VHS’ days are numbered, too. Sony has already announced the development of a new digital consumer video format, which may hit the market by the early 1990’s. We’ll hope that this time all the consumer electronics companies will bury the hatchet-and not in each other-and unite together on a single new format, and learn from the mistakes of history.


Many hundreds of articles and interviews were distilled and utilized in the preparation of this story, but the works below were, by far, the most significant.

Graham, Margaret — ”RCA and the Videodisc: The Business of Research,” Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England: 1986)

Lardner, James — Fast Forward: Hollywood, the Japanese, and the Onslaught of the VCR,” W.W. Norton & Co. (New York: 1987)

Lyons, Nick — ”The Sony Vision,” Crown Publishers (New York: 1976)

Morita, Akio with Edwin M. Reingold and Mitsuko Shimomura — ”Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony,” E.P. Dutton (New York: 1986)

Nayak, P. Ranganath, Ph.D. and John M. Ketteringham, Ph.D. — ”Breakthroughs!,” Rawson Associates (New York: 1986)

Special thanks go to Michael Heiss, for many years Videography magazine’s West Cost correspondent, who provided several insights and some of the background materials for this story.

We also want to acknowledge the work of Ken Winslow of Videoplay Report and also AI Preiss of TV International, both of whom were instrumental in documenting the embryonic history of home video, circa 1968-1980. We were proud to know both of these men, and regret that neither lived to see the end of the Beta story.

Lastly, our special regards must also go to the hard-working men and women at Sony and other companies who also helped shed some light on this fascinating subject, who, by the nature of their comments, must remain nameless. Thank you, one and all.

Used with permission of the authors.


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