Home video has – in a similar manner to cinema in general – had an incredibly rich and varied past – this we all know. The quality of the picture, the actors, the themes, the sounds: it all changes over time. Even the formats with which we view any home media have changed, with different home video vessels coming and going over the years. We might well be on DVD and Blu-ray these days, but we haven’t always had it so easy and in such high definition.
Like home video entertainment itself, home video storage/playback technology has come in leaps and bounds since the early days (whenever one might class those as, but that is a whole other kettle of fish). So sit back in your reclining rocker or favorite comfortable chair and let us take a brief look at just what has brought us to the current home video technology that we use today.
It would be rather untoward to start with anything else, especially considering how the very term “home video” was coined from the extensive use of VHS tapes to drive the medium forward.
VHS (or Video Home System) was a major player in the television industry from way back in the 1970s right up until the late 90s/start of 2000, when DVD replaced VHS as the home video format of choice. VHS was developed by JVC (Victor Company of Japan) and was immediately at the forefront of the videotape format wars of the time, being JVC’s answer to Sony’s Betamax videocassette tape (more on which later). Eventually, VHS would win the “war” and emerge triumphant as the staple videocassette and indeed become somewhat of an icon for home video usage the world over.
The second major player in the videotape format wars of 70s and 80s, the Betamax type of videocassette was developed by Sony and was formally released to consumers in 1975. Similar in design to JVC’s VHS cassettetapes, the Betamax was sadly destined for failure and would eventually lose the format wars and become obsolete (although still used by purists or certain specialized occasions).
Taking its name from a portmanteau of the Japanese word for the way the signals were recorded and the Greek letter it resembled upon the tape being run (beta), combined with the –max suffix to suggest greatness (a sad piece of irony there), Betamax was fighting a losing battle a mere two years after its release, having about half the recording time of the VHS tapes being released in competition. Although for argument’s sake, it must be said that Betamax was a slightly smaller format than VHS, so there were some advantages.
Essentially it came down to the fact that Betamax couldn’t keep up with the advancements that VHS was experiencing, namely being in the recording side of things. Betamax-based video recorders wound up being record-only, playback would – for technological reasons – only be available on full-size home VCRs, a bothersome chore that consumers would not put up with for long, especially in light of VHS-based recorders supporting full playback and copying capabilities. Poor Betamax.
With its 30-60 minute-per-side capabilities, the laserdisc was a far cry from the massive storage capabilities of DVD and Blu-ray that we enjoy today. Developed in part by Philips, MCA, and Pioneer, the laserdisc saw a brief existence in the late 70s and early 80s, with very minimal usage seeing it last until around 2000.
The format itself was – rather interestingly – fully capable of offering a higher quality of home video/audio than its counterparts of the era, yet was received rather negatively in most home video-viewing countries. America and Europe wanted nothing to do with the laserdisc, yet Japan and parts of South East Asia seemed to get along with the laserdisc fairly well. Near the end of the laserdisc’s career as a viable format, 2% of US households had a laserdisc player, which is significantly less than the 10% of Japanese household stocking the format.
Laserdiscs were subsequently completely replaced by the more widely-accepted DVD format in the early 2000s. However, it would not be entirely true to say that the format was now obsolete, as laserdiscs still have a prominent place in the hearts of collectors (particularly in Japan, where the format was relatively better received) and even sees relative amounts of use in certain circles.