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Dead medium: Dead UK Video Formats
From: (Trevor Black)

Source(s):, Friday, April 16, 1999 Published at 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK

Video Nation: 20 Years Of Taping

My dad's announcement, in the early 80s, that he had signed up for the Open University was a truly joyous event - because it meant our house got a video recorder.

The time he spent at the kitchen table doing sums was fully exploited by his kids - showcasing our newly-rented video to the world.

Friends gaped in wonder as we knowingly pushed massive buttons on its 'remote' control, nonchalantly stepping over the yards of flex attaching it to the machine.

The excitement of being able to make screen people walk backwards and forwards at high speed was of the Christmas morning variety.

A short time later, being allowed to take possession of the video rental club card to hire a film was the height of playground sophistication.

The burning question on everyone's lips was: 'Have you got VHS or Betamax?' Already, ownership of one or the other was a test of cool. The garage, after all, had five or six shelves of VHS tapes - and only one of Betamax.

A couple of years earlier, they might also have asked about the third format to chance its arm in the home video market.

Philips' Video 2000 uniquely required the user to turn the tape over half way through its eight hour play time, just like an audio cassette.

But despite its innovation and high quality, the V2000 was the first casualty of the Format Wars.

The battle for video recording machine supremacy is as synonymous with the early 80s as cerise lipstick and Miami Vice.

Nick Thomas of Philips, says: "It is often said that VHS won the day because of its software, but that's rubbish.

"I lived through it all, and what really happened was that some Japanese manufacturers could produce far greater quantities of video recorders.

"The dealers were desperate to get their hands on video recorders, and so took them from anyone who could supply them.

"What people like JVC then did was to say, yes we've got 80 video recorders, but you'll have to take 100 of our TVs as well. It also represented a sea change in the high street electrical industry.

"At the time, names like Pye and Bush were still well-known and respected, but the Japanese grip on the electronics market came off the back of video recorders."

The video recording adventure had in fact kicked off a couple of decades before the height of the format wars.

In 1956, the American company Ampex produced a machine called the Quadraplex.

Standing at 6ft tall, the Quadraplex was intended for the professional market, but it represented a revolution in recording - its tape could be recorded over again and again.

It was another 10 years before manufacturers attempted to market machines for the home - Sony had a model called the CV2000 for sale in 1965 - but they were expensive and complex and they flopped.

A couple of years before that, even, a small valve company in Nottingham produced a reel-to-reel system called the Telecan, which could manage to tape 10 minutes of low-resolution black and white TV. It never went on sale, although a similar system later did.

By the end of the decade, however, the push was on. TV manufacturers could see the possibility of the bottom falling out of their market, and needed to be able to produce new consumer items.

Philips is generally regarded by enthusiasts as the producer of the first true home video recorder.

Other video recorders had been made for use in colleges and institutions - but were complicated and hugely expensive.

But Philips' N1500 model, complete with an analogue clock like a cooker timer, was relatively small and had its tape enclosed in cassettes.

At 750-800 - at the time, roughly the price of a new Mini - they were far from cheap, however, and did not sell in any great volume.

Laser disc recorders put in an appearance. Sony, meanwhile, were marketing the ultimately doomed Betamax machines.

Lauded by enthusiasts for their quality, their manufacturers are thought to have spent too much time thinking about perfecting their product, and not enough about making a lot of them.

Joint curator of the virtual video recorder museum, Total Rewind, David Browne, explains: "As the Japanese formats arrived in this country, the Thorn-EMI group backed VHS and flooded their many high-street TV rental shops with low-cost VHS machines.

"Sony, meanwhile, were concentrating on quality, and so Beta became a format to buy while VHS was the format to rent. Unfortunately, most people preferred to rent, particularly when the simplest machine cost around 700.

"This process was then self-reinforcing, because the presence of two formats made people reluctant to commit to one and risk picking the eventual loser - and so they rented and waited to see what would happen.

"By 1980, out of an estimated 100,000 homes with VCRs, 70% were rented."

From all camps, model followed model - until VCRs became the video victors in the late 80s.

The old machines are now becoming collectible - and the video adventure looks set to continue.

Mr Thomas said: "We are working on VCRs which will be able to understand spoken commands.

"And they will be able to work in an anecdotal way as well, so you will be able to say to the video recorder - 'you know that film with Charlton Heston and chariots, can you record it please?' and the machine will be able to work out that you mean Ben Hur.

"It could talk back to you. But we have to be led by what people want, and people want to be in control, they don't want machines bossing them around, which is fair enough.

"That is one of the main thing video achieved for people - it put them in control of television for the first time.

"We are approaching a point where people will be able to have My TV, a completely personalised video recording system which will learn what the individual likes to watch. Consumers may not see anything in real time ever again."

So a video/TV combo which uniquely records Open University programmes could be just around the corner.