Betamax promo takes us way back in time . . .

May 10, 2007 | By | 9 Replies More

Check out Sony’s 1975 promo for Betamax.  More specifically, this is a seven-minute vintage promotional video for the Sony Trinitron/Betamax console   You probably know at least part of the Betamax story:  Betamax, a superior video product, was beat out by VHS. 

I am sharing this video because it serves quite well as a time capsule.  It takes us back to an era when television watchers could not time-shift.  You either watched a television show when everyone else did or you missed it completely.   It was a time when people also had far fewer viewing options.  Workers were far more likely to find someone at the water cooler who saw the same show they watched the previous evening.   Now, with DVDs and Tivo (along with our aging VCR’s), we don’t generally share our reactions to things that appeared recently on TV, with the exception of sports events.  It makes me wonder whether this shift has contributed to the fact that so many people are addicted to sports spectating.  We’ve commented on that phenomenon before (see here).  In sum, we can’t bond well over most television shows, because we watch them a different times.  On the other hand, sports events are worthless to most people unless they are live.  Therefore, there is still plenty of opportunity to bond over sports events at work (and elsewhere).

As you can see from this promo, Sony advertised its Betamax as a chance to “control the past,” to play (or replay) shows anytime.  Thanks to Betamax, there was no more excuse for missing your favorite programs or squabbling over who gets to choose the channel.  Young adults might think this is all boring and obvious, but this promo really does illustrate how different things were not too long ago.

I couldn’t help but notice the smallness of the television in this promo.  It looks to be about a 20” screen.  Also notice the dated way in which the product was presented.  Remember that this was state of the art advertising back in 1975, complete with rolling fog and twinkling stars.  It all looks so hokey now.  The voice over seems so pretentious.

By the way, it’s difficult to buy a VCR anymore.   I recently needed one to convert some of my old VHS tapes, using a DVD burner I already owned.  I went to Best Buy, where I was told that they simply don’t sell VCR’s anymore (though you can buy DVD/VCR combos).  The salesperson told me to go to Target or Kmart.  I went to Target, where there was only one model available, costing $50.  It was a full-featured model that would have been unthinkably expensive had it been available in 1977.  

Time marches on . . .

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Cultural Evolution, Entertainment, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Beta lost out for economic reasons: Beta could only record a max of 4 hours on a $20 tape. VHS had a 6 hr mode. This mattered more to people than its superior shelf life and quality.

    This video looks like an internal thing used to pump up salespeople for department and appliance stores.

  2. Godless Geek says:

    Betamax isn't completely dead. I worked at a small town cable company for a time, and we would get promos on Betamax at our local access studio on a regular basis. We didn't have any playback equipment in house, but the bigger guys apparently used it with some regularity.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    As of the mid 1990's, Beta was the official standard used by the National Park Service for archival preservation of audio (as from Edison cylinders, wax records, and such).

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    It's hard to say exactly what killed Betamax, because it had many shortcomings relative to VHS, only one of which was the technical one Dan mentioned. In addition to shorter play length, it also suffered from incompetent marketing, insufficient advertising, Sony's arrogance, a dearth of pre-recorded movies…the list goes on. Arguably, the fundamental mistake Sony made — and it is evident in the above-referenced advertisement — was failing to anticipate the popularity of pre-recorded movies. Sony focused virtually all of its attention on time-shifting (i.e., home recording), so their first machines had a maximum recording time of just one hour. That was long enough to record most television programs in the 1970s, but it was too short for a full-length Hollywood movie. Accordingly, when video rental stores began to open, owners overwhelming chose the VHS format, because it required only one tape per movie, instead of two with Beta. Viewers also preferred this trait, because movies could be played without interruption. Once pre-recorded content swung to VHS, Beta was doomed. I don't know much about the Sony Corporation of that era, but I would bet it was an engineering-driven company, where engineers made the business decisions, and marketing was an afterthought. Beta was technically superior, but still worse in the eyes of customers. It is a practice that has doomed many companies and many good products.

    BTW, Sony is currently involved in another format war — this time over high-definition DVD. Sony and a large group of consumer electronics and computer companies are backing Sony's Blu-Ray, while everyone else — most importantly, Hollywood — is supporting HD DVD. As with the video formats of the 1970s, these two formats are incompatible, setting the stage for a clash of titans.

    My own prediction: Sony will lose again, because it has a long history of creating proprietary media formats that die because they cost more than the alternatives. They have included: Betamax, MiniDisc and Memory Stick. Likewise, HD DVD is likely to be cheaper than Blu-Ray, not only because it will not have the Sony brand surcharge, but also because it is similar to the current DVD standard, whereas Blu-Ray is not, so production and conversion costs will likely be lower. Only time will tell who will win.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    I almost forgot to mention…VCRs are still available at most thrift stores and garage sales, though often without a working remote control. Replacement (universal) remote controls can be found at Walmart (and elsewhere) for under $10.

  6. Erika Price says:

    And soon, we won't even need a tangible version of media at all. With the advent of mp3 players and online television airing, you don't need a hard copy of type of show or music you should wish to enjoy. I think probably the switch from tangible hard-copy media to transferable data will overall have an even larger cultural impact. Look at what mp3s have done to the music industry! The music industry has lost a great deal of ground, and even with the RIAA's enforcement, new albums leak several months before their official release and spread like wildfire.

    Actually, this has probably had a similar effect as with recordable television and sports. We don't have to wait for a specific release date or even leave the house to buy music anymore, so we can only create that sense of community by going to concerts.

  7. Ben says:

    I'm amazed that nobody mentioned Tivo. I guess if you don't watch tv, you don't need tivo? Okay that makes sense. But for me, I salivate at the thought of Tivo, no commercials, it records what you want and you can fast forward and rewind it and pause "live" tv.

  8. Ben says:

    Oops, I guess I had one eye on the tv (commercial)…

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Tivo is one brand name of Digital Video Recorder. You can pay monthly for the service (like Tivo, which is "free" with a $700/year satellite package) or cobble one together for free from an old computer by adding open source DVR software. You might need to spring for a 100$ HDTV tuner and remote for the old machine.

    Basically, these replace the linear recording tape with a random-access disk, plus software to take advantage of the flexibility.

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