VHS versus Betamax

VHS killed the Betamax star - The classic battle

Famous format wars I VHS versus Betamax I 8-Track versus cassette I Sega versus Sony versus Nintendo I Blu-ray versus HD-DVD I Future format wars

The mid-seventies, and blockbusters such as Jaws, The Godfather and Star Wars are blowing up the box-office. The home video market is primed to explode, following a string of false starts and Sony seems to be leading the way with its Betamax format. JVC however has other ideas…

According to New Yorker journalist James Lardner in his 1987 book Fast Forward: Hollywood and the Japanese VCR Wars, back in 1974 Sony displayed all the business sense of a Northern Rock loans seller. It brazenly showed off a Betamax prototype to rivals Matsushita – now Panasonic – who owned JVC. The chaps from Matsushita simply smiled and acted impressed while failing to mention that JVC’s VHS project was well under way. Less than a year later in a Godfather-esque shakedown, Sony was told that “it wasn’t too late” for it to embrace the VHS, “for the good of the industry.”

With Betamax players months away from production, Sony stuck to its guns and then filed suit against JVC, claiming that the formats were suspiciously similar. All the time though, it must have thought it was on to a winner. Betamax cassettes were smaller and boasted superior video quality because of the higher bandwidth. What could go wrong? “Sony’s favourite saying at the time was that Betamax was technically superior, which it was,” says JVC’s UK technical manager Gary Broadbent, who joined the company as a VHS engineer in 1984, fixing “hundreds upon hundreds of the damn things.”

JVC released longer blank cassettes, but this was a minor factor according to Broadbent. He gives much of the credit to stores such as Radio Rentals. For the benefit of younger readers, this was a chain that used to rent equipment to households, back in the days when VCRs, washing machines and the like were too expensive for many people to buy outright. It shut down in 2000.

“The main reason VHS caught on is because of its presence in the rental market,” Broadbent says. “In the 1970s VCRs were £500-£600 each [about £2,500 in today’s money] so Radio Rentals and the like did a great trade churning them out for £2.50 a week. For whatever reason Sony didn’t seem to want to go down that route, but it was the making of VHS.”

One of tech’s most told tales is the old yarn about pornography deciding the video format war. This is something of an exaggeration, but the availability of adult movies was part of a wider trend that gave VHS another edge.

“It wasn’t just porn, it was films in general,” says Broadbent. “There were never many pre-recorded films available on Betamax.” With Sony seeing its device primarily as a home recording tool, VHS took off as a way to watch blockbusters at home, helped by a burgeoning black market. “In those days, buying a movie cost up to £80,” recalls Broadbent, “so naughty people would rent a film, make a copy, then make copies of that copy and sell them. That underground industry really helped to establish our format.”

Ironic, then, that the law seemed to be against Sony more than its rival. In 1976 Sony became entrenched in a legal battle with Universal Studios and Disney over whether home viewers should be allowed to record copyrighted material. It kept Betamax titles off the shelves at a crucial moment and by the time the court ruled in Sony’s favour, VHS had well and truly gained the ascendancy.

“What we learned from VHS vs Betamax was it wasn’t just the hardware that was important, but also the software,” Sony’s product specialist Eric Kingdon, who has been with Sony for 25 years, says: “That’s why we sought to acquire, firstly, an interest in the music business and then later in motion pictures, while retaining strong partnerships with the studios. As a result of that format war we became acutely aware of how all the pieces fit together in one big jigsaw.”

Those lessons were learned at a cost. The battle continued well into the 1980s with more and more studios deserting Betamax to jump into bed with VHS. With its market share down to 7.5 per cent, Sony reluctantly began producing VHS machines. Why did it take so long?

“It was the sheer bloody-mindedness of the two companies,” said JVC’s Gary Broadbent. “Akio Morita, who was in charge of Sony, felt his company must be seen to be winning so Betamax had a long, lingering death. Sales tailed off for five or six years before they eventually killed it off. They just didn’t want to lose face.

“The mood when Sony threw in the towel was one of absolute jubilance. Even after that, Sony continued to say that Betamax was the superior format and that it should have succeeded. But it was straightforward. Someone won and someone lost, it was as simple as that.”