In our age of technology, it is hard to imagine a time when we couldn’t watch a movie from the comfort of our own home. However, this luxury did not become a reality until the mid to late 1970s. Yes, a few of the extremely wealthy could afford the 16mm/8mm film projectors for their home entertainment rooms, but even these devices had limited technical capabilities.
For the vast majority of the world, if they missed the original theatrical run of a film, then they might never see it. Some of the more popular films would be given a theatrical re-release, be screened at revival houses or found in the archives of a museum or library. An older movie being shown on television was the best option for most people. However, this meant having to watch an edited version, with commercial interruptions and at a very specific viewing time.
In 1965, Eastman Kodak released the the Super 8mm film format into the market. It was a huge technological leap up from previous machines and allowed for shortened versions of movies to be played at home. However, its high price tag kept home movies a small niche market of film enthusiast. The Super 8 enjoyed most of its financial success by allowing people to record their own home movies.
When Sony released Betamax to the Japanese market on May 10, 1975, the world of home viewing entertainment would begin its transformation. This new analog videocassette magnetic tape recording devices eventually created an affordable way for people to watch movies at home, whenever they wanted. Originally, film studios and video distributors thought the public would only want to rent movies, but as these machines became affordable, more and more people wanted to build their own movie libraries. The society we lived in was about to change forever.
Useless Fact #1
How did Betamax get its name? Beta is the Japanese word describing how information was recorded on the tape and as the tape ran through the transport, it appeared to look like the beta symbol from the Greek alphabet. Max was taken from maximum to imply greatness.
The Betamax was released into the market first, but the desire to create a consumer friendly video recording/playing device was a technology many companies were trying to develop. It only took a year for Victor Company of Japan (JVC), to produce their own analog recording videotape cassette technology. JVC’s Video Home System product, better known as VHS, would begin the Videotape Format War. In a short period of time, Beta went from having 100% of the market, to fighting for its life.
Recording time was a big factor in VHS’s dominance over Betamax. The original Betamax only had 60 minutes of recording time, while VHS doubled that at 120 minutes. Each company continually worked to improve their recording time. The ultimate goal was 4 hours, because that was the average time an American football game ran on television. While great strides were made in increasing recording time, the picture quality would decrease in quality as time increased. Beta had the better picture quality and Sony engineers did not feel the sacrifice between picture and time was worth it. However, the normal television sets of the time were not powerful enough to make a noticeable difference in clarity to all but the biggest film enthusiast. VHS was able to put out a cheaper machine and this made a big difference in the consumer’s spending choice. The lower price also meant a wider availability of rental machines and cassettes for people to choose from.
In the end, JVC’s decision to license their VHS technology to most of the large electronic companies like Panasonic, RCA, Magnavox, Quasar, Zenith and many more allowed the technology to grow rapidly, spread swiftly and drop in price quickly. Sony’s attempt to dictate the industry standard backfired. The video format war is now examined by businesses and become the classic case study in marketing.
Useless Fact #2
The 1984 LaserDisc Citizen Kane Criterion Collection is considered the first Special Edition home video.
Only a few years after the Betamax and VHS tapes entered the market, the first commercial optical disc storage medium became available to the public. Laser disc technology was invented by David Paul Gregg and James Russell back in 1958 and was first patented in 1961. However, it would be the MCA DiscoVision that first put the LaserDisc on North American shelves. It was released in 1978 and Jaws would be the first movie offered in this new format.
Although it was a success in Japan and some of the richer areas in Southeast Asia, LaserDisc was never able to fully break into the American and European markets. From a technical standpoint, LaserDisc was a far superior product than its VHS or Betamax competitors. LaserDisc’s audio and video quality surpassed anything that could be achieved on tape. To give you an idea of picture quality; VHS had a resolution of 240 TVL (Television Lines), while LaserDic was between 425-440 TVL lines. A LaserDic could play both analog and digital audio. This allowed for “Special Edition” features like director's commentary tracks to be added into a film. The formating also allowed people to instantly jump around to any part of the movie. This was a huge advantage over VHS and Betamax tapes that could only be fast forwarded, rewound or paused. However, this quality came at a price. The discs were the size of a record and weighed close to half a pound. Each side could only hold 30 to 60 minutes of information, so discs had to be flipped in the middle of the movie and some films required more than one disc. The discs were also easily damaged. The players were loud, because of the amount of power needed to spin these large discs at the proper speed. Ultimately, it was the much higher cost for both the players and videos that turned people away. The last movie to be released in North America was Bringing Out The Dead in 2000 and Japan stopped releasing movies the following year. Pioneer would continue making LaserDisc players until January 14, 2009.
LaserDisc may not have been able to dominate the market when it was release, but its technology would be the foundation for CD, DVDs and Blu-rays that took home entertainment to the next level.
The Digital Video Disc was invented in 1995 by Philips, Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic. This small, lightweight disc was able to hold vast amounts of information and had many applications in our evolving electronic world. The movie industry was excited about this new technology and jumped on the opportunities it presented. These discs were able to show movies with amazing picture and sound quality. A DVDs lifespan was also significantly longer than tape. The tape used in VHS was known for wearing out after too much use. Most importantly, they offered a cheap way to implement the interactive features that LaserDisc owners loved. While a LaserDisc retailed for almost 100 dollars, these DVDs could be sold for 20 dollars. This let movie studios push the sale of their movies directly on consumers, rather than through the rental market. This led to a huge revenue stream for production companies.
The DVD-Video format took off in Japan when it was originally introduced in 1996, but would take several years before gaining a foothold in the rest of the world. It was introduced in the United Stated in 1997, but did not dominate the market until the early 2000s. June 15, 2003 would make the beginning of DVD rentals outnumbering VHS.
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Useless Fact #3
Blu-ray gets its name from the blue laser used to read the discs. The blue wavelength allows information to be stored at a higher density than the longer-wavelength red laser that was used for DVDs.
HD DVD vs. Blu-ray
In the mid 1990s, technological advancements had allowed high definition televisions to reach a price point that made them attractive to many consumers. As more homes started having these high quality image tv sets in their living room, the race was on to find the next generation of formating for movies. This would lead to another format war. Toshiba released the High-Definition/Density DVD (HD DVD) in 2006. The Last Samurai, Million Dollar Baby, The Phantom of the Opera and Serenity would be the first movies available in this new format. A group representing makers of consumer electronics, computer hardware, and motion pictures formed their own research group called the Blu-ray Disc Association. This association had been working on their own next generation DVD for a while. Sony released a prototype of their new technology in 2000 and in 2006 began the wide release of the Blu-ray player. The first movies offered on Blu-ray would be 50 First Dates, The Fifth Element, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, Twister, Underworld: Evolution, xXx and The Terminator.
Both formats wanted to avoid another costly marketing war. Unfortunately negotiations for a compromise could never be reached and the next format war was on. The HD-DVD started off strong. HD-DVD had more titles available than Blu-ray and the first wave of Blu-ray players did not inspire consumer confidence. Buyers felt the machines were buggy and too expensive. However, Sony ran an aggressive and successful marketing campaign. They were also able to use their larger presence in home entertainment to their advantage. Sony had their popular game console, PlayStation 3, use a Blu-ray Disc player for its primary storage. This allowed gamers to play their favorite video games and watch Blu-ray movies on the same system, eliminating the need to buy a separate player. Sony and Panasonic also launched the new AVCHD camcorder (Advanced Video Coding High Definition). Users could play back their recordings on most Blu-ray players, without having to go through the tedious process of re-encoding the data. This could not be done on the HD DVD players. Blu-ray began outselling HD DVDs in January of 2007. It would not be long before Blu-rays were selling two dics for every one HD DVD. Major studios soon stopped releasing their movies on HD DVD. Warner Brothers was the last major studio to release their films on HD DVD and Blu-ray. When they announced in January of 2008 that their movies would no longer be available on HD DVD, the second format war was all but over. Warner Brother’s news led to large retail chains like Best Buy, Walmart, Future Shop and Woolworths to stop carrying the HD DVD in their stores. Netflix and Blockbuster also announced they would no longer be renting HD DVDs to their members. Toshiba stopped producing HD DVD machines in March 2008.
Movie streaming has revolutionized the home entertainment experience. The basis for the technology goes all the way back to the early 1920s, when George O. Squier acquired the patents for a system that transmitted and distributed signals over electrical lines. However, it would not be till the late 80s that personal computers started to became powerful enough to realize its potential. In 1995 Microsoft developed ActiveMovie, which allowed people to stream media from their computers. In 1999, Apple would introduce QuickTime 4 and from there the technology started to grow rapidly. By 2002 Adobe Flash has been adopted as the most widely used format for streaming video content. On February 14, 2005, three former PayPal employees launched their own small internet company. Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim set their headquarters above a pizzeria and Japanese restaurant in San Mateo, California and gave the world YouTube. This video-sharing website brought internet videos to a whole new level. With bandwidth, internet connections and processing power all growing quickly, the field was set for movie streaming.
Netflix was no stranger to the dot-com business and knew how to capitalize on this new era of technology. They originally opened in in 1997 as an online movie rental business. People would rent films from their site and Netflix mailed them the physical DVD. They have been hailed as one of the most successful dot-com businesses ever. They were so popular that they had become the fastest growing customer of the United States Postal Service’s first-class mail service. In 2007, Netflix would start their movie streaming service and by 2010 they had become the largest evening, internet traffic source in North America. Today, almost every movie studio, television station or movie rental show offers to stream some portion of their video libraries.
In a world where people are able to watch movies on their televisions, computers or phones, streaming videos has become the dominant source of movie watching. People are now able to watch movies anywhere and at anytime. It has allowed people to have Instant control over their viewing desires and be freed from the physical obstacles of having to deal with a tangible object that takes up space.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on May 24, 2020:
Bring back the video store! Going to my local video stores is one of the cherished memories that I hold dear from youth. One of the thrills that I think a younger generation has been robbed of is going to a friends house and going to THEIR local store. It's a familiar yet completely different vibe! Oh how I miss those days =(
Charles flOppy on September 19, 2019:
He clearly likes it!
Xeno on January 29, 2018:
So I was reading this article, and it's very informative, but,
Geekdom (author) on January 30, 2014:
Thanks for commenting. Glad this hub was able to bring back some old memories. It is crazy how huge new technology starts out.
nuffsaidstan on January 29, 2014:
When VHS and Betamax came out my mate bought this machine i think was called the Phillips System 2000 or something like that, he said it was far better than the other two systems, it may well have been if you could have bought films to watch on it that is! Blimey it was huge, about the size of a small car! You are right though Betamax was definitely a better picture but JVC were wiser selling to the market.