Betamax. The name alone is reason enough why every household in the eighties should have had a Betamax in its lounge and not a VHS. VHS isn’t even a name, it’s an acronym and who likes acronyms? People that write “LOL” and that kind of nonsense, that’s who likes acronyms and who’d trust them? (sorry for my limited acronym examples, but I flatly refuse to use them – FYI)
Needless to say, we had a Betamax in our house when I was a wee boy. I think it ranks, quite possibly, as the coolest purchase my dad has ever made. Although, I doubt it was technically a purchase because back in the day everyone used Radio Rentals for their audio visual equipment. After all, who in their right mind would want to actually own one of these contraptions when you could pay £30 a month over a decade for the privilege? Funny now that Radio Rentals is long gone from the high street and has been replaced by “Cash4Gold” and the like. I’m not sure what that says about us as a nation, although it probably says that our home technology is better.
In fairness to my parents, TVs and video players in the early eighties had a habit of breaking down – a lot. I do remember that the TV repairman was a common site in our living room (and its paisley patterned carpet) – the smell of solder brings back memories to this day… I must drop the habit of sniffing the stuff. Which leads me to another claim to fame almost as boastful as “meeting” Tiger Woods – our TV repairman was Lorraine Kelly‘s dad!
Whilst she was on the telly, he was fixing ours. Back then I guess she was only on local screens (STV – another acronym!) doing a bit of reporting, some would say that’s further than her talents should have warranted too. I don’t know about that, I can tell you that her dad was often called upon to fix our stuff, so I don’t know if that means he was good or bad. Maybe he was rubbish which explained why he kept coming back or maybe he was good and my savvy parents demanded the services of Mr Kelly for their £30 a month – I’ll never know.
Anyone who had Radio Rentals kit will probably remember that it was always a bit naff. I remember getting excited, and also upset of course, when we were waiting for a new VHS player to replace the old Betamax. I was excited because my parents had ordered a video player with a remote control. When it turned up, the control was remote, I’ll give it that, but it was also wired into the video player so that a long black cable was a new nuisance to be avoided every time you walked across the room – typical VHS, you wouldn’t have gotten that with a Betamax.
I suspect my parents spent a third of their disposable income on TVs and videos in the 1980s, such was the cost of hiring from Radio Rentals. I could be exaggerating, it’s been known, but they really didn’t get value for money. It could have been worse, one of my neighbours had a V2000 video player. I remember being wowed by the fact that it could play both sides of the tape, thus doubling the recording time. If I’d been the parent back then I’d have probably plumped for the V2000. Of course the downside was this: if you were able to walk into a mid-eighties video rental shop today you’d find 75% of the space is devoted to VHS releases, 24% is Betamax and 1% is V2000.
Another thing about mid eighties video stores of note, is that they were dodgy places. We signed up to the one on Burnside High Street hot on the back of the purchase (loan) of the Betamax, and later that week our house got burgled. Now that’s an efficient service! You wouldn’t get that from Love Film.com would you?
The death of Betamax
There are a lot of reasons why Betamax ultimately failed. Yes it was better than VHS in many ways. I just laughed when I looked at an article written in 1988 about the demise of Betamax – it states one advantage as being that the smaller tapes could be carried around in your pocket. Really? I know fashion was rubbish in the eighties, but I don’t recall bin bag-sized pockets as being one of the many fashion no-no’s.
It’s often used as a case study of how good marketing can make a technically inferior product the number one product, but I think that’s pushing it – it was a combination of things. Betamax failed for many reasons: It was more expensive to produce, had shorter recording times than VHS, had a more exclusive distribution (i.e. not nearly as much as VHS!), had poor support from publishers (I’ve even read that the lack of pornography on Betamax was what killed it) and Sony were pretty complacent and didn’t market the technology aggressively enough.
Still, in the last round of format wars Sony won. Bluray beat DVDHD (death to the acronym) because it has a cool name. Although I doubt Bluray’s will feature in the lounges of the UK for the next decade, unlike video players. Technology moves quickly these days and it’s all going to go digital, no discs or tapes or anything else.
It’s a shame though, because I still remember feeling pretty cool because we had a Betamax in our house; even if it was a Sanyo.
- Goodbye Beta: Sony will make VHS players (time.com)
- Two new additions: Save the Betamax and Furl (travisswicegood.com)
- 10 defunct TV technologies (holykaw.alltop.com)