DoYouRemember is proud to present the second installment in a series of essays, “What’s the Big Idea?” by Garry Berman. In this essay, we talk about the debut of the Sony Betamax Recorder along with the impact it had on VHS tapes. Information about the birth of iconic American products will be complemented by advertising images that first displayed these items to the public. As Berman writes, “We are surrounded each day by various modern inventions and conveniences that have become so common to our lives that we use or experience them almost without thinking. As we benefit from their assistance in making our living easier, we rarely, if ever, stop just for a moment to ponder that there was once a time when each of these products did not exist….Still, there was a moment early in the life of each of our modern conveniences, luxury items and even fast-food sandwiches when it was first presented to the general public for our acceptance or rejection.
Each was introduced in its advertising as the next Big Deal, one that could change our collective lifestyle and greatly influence our popular culture. In hindsight, most of those items have done just that.” Today, we investigate a classic piece of technology from the 1970s. Below, from Garry Berman’s “What’s the Big Idea?”:
Before there was the DVR, there was the VHS video recorder. Before there was VHS, there was Beta, and the Betamax VCR, which did nothing less than revolutionize the way we watch television.
Once Milton Berle and his zany variety show took the fledgling medium of television by storm in 1948, millions of TV viewers found themselves re-arranging their social schedules to accommodate watching their favorite programs. They had no choice: Either watch the show when it aired live or miss it, and, in most cases, never have another opportunity to see it. It would be nearly 30 years between the first airing of Uncle Miltie and the day when we could finally enjoy the flexibility of watching any TV program at our own convenience.
Videotape for commercial purposes, including use by the major TV networks, was first demonstrated in 1956 by Alexander Poniatoff. It replaced the kinescope, which essentially involved pointing a film camera at a studio TV monitor and filming the live program off the screen as it aired. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, kinescopes had been the only way to preserve and broadcast live programs to be aired at varying times by individual stations around the country. Videotape changed that forever, but was, for many years, not considered something useful for the average home.
In the mid-1960s, early versions of home VCRs appeared on the market, but with price tags rivaling that of small cars (and the consoles were nearly as big). More work was required to make the machine user-friendly without busting the consumer’s budget altogether.
In 1971, Sony introduced the U-Matic VCR, which used three-fourths-inch tape cartridges in a player/recorder touted in its ad copy as “a revolutionary new means of communication.” The ad went to considerable length simply to explain the basic concept of a videotape system, its capabilities, and possibilities for commercial—and especially medical—use. Ironically, the ad included just a single phrase to suggest that “perhaps, someday, there’ll be a U-matic in every living room.”
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