A t the tail end of August, a brief obituary ran in business pages around the world: The Betamax VCR format was dead. Sony had just announced that it would stop manufacturing its Betamax video-recording machines by year’s end and concentrate instead on DVD and other new technologies.
The big surprise here was not the disclosure that Betamax was about to breathe its last; it was the revelation that the quintessentially ’70s and ’80s technology was still alive. Who would have thought it? Didn’t it lose the war way back in 1988, when Sony, in a tacit admission that Beta’s rival format had cornered the market, first started making VHS recorders? In some ways, the company’s latest statement is on a par with the zany announcement by the South Australian state government on Aug. 16 that World War II was officially over. People, we’d heard that already.
But there’s always more to a story than you think. In the South Australian case, the official declaration was required to overturn a wartime emergency powers act that gave the state government sweeping, and by now illegal, authority to search, arrest, impose rationing and so on. In the excitement of 1945, apparently, they forgot to revoke it.
In Sony’s case, similarly, it turns out that the company had never actually stopped manufacturing Betamax VCRs; most of us just thought it had. Sony did halt overseas production of the fast-fading technology in 1998, but evidently continued to produce a small number for the domestic market right through the stagnant ’90s and into the new millennium. Make that a very small number: just 2,800 units last year. That does not get you sidewalk space in Akihabara.
Nevertheless, Betamax technology kept its devotees to the bitter end. Home-recording aficionados are doubtless penning requiems to Beta right now, along with hymns to its inherent and undying superiority to VHS. Even those of us whose televisions were, and are, so no-frills that the supposed difference between the two was never remotely detectable will recall the Betamax years with nostalgia.
The fact is, Betamax was first — in everything. It was the first home video-cassette recorder on the market, all those eons ago in 1975. And it was the first with every subsequent improvement to the format after that, except, perhaps crucially, for recording length. In a curious way, that makes it first in our hearts, as well, even though we all long ago switched to VHS, then Super-VHS, then 8-mm video, then laserdisc, then DVD, in the never-ending search for the best possible small-screen version of “Roman Holiday.”
Betamax is us when we were younger. Remember those days (we find ourselves thinking now) when the word was virtually synonymous with VCR, that magical new toy? Remember when you would walk into a video store and most of the stock was in Beta format? Remember those few pivotal years in the late ’70s and early ’80s when people really had to wrestle with the choice: Betamax or VHS? And what about all those old Beta tapes of our children’s piano recitals and baseball games? The kids are grown and gone now, and the tapes are gathering dust in dim closets. With Sony’s surprise announcement last month, baby boomers everywhere registered a twinge of grief: not for an outdated scrap of technology, but for themselves.
But there was surely a twinge of admiration in there, too. Betamax, it turned out, was a survivor in the grand Japanese tradition once characterized by scholar Ivan Morris as the nobility of failure. For whatever reason — poor marketing, stubbornness, just plain bad luck-Beta’s share of the VCR market had shrunk to less than 1 percent by 1989. Yet, contrary to expectations, it didn’t skulk away. Twenty-seven years after its dazzling debut, it is still a cult object for technophiles, helped rather than hindered, probably, by its very scarcity.
It is ironic that it should finally be bowing out just as its arch rival, Victor Japan’s VHS-format recorder, seems headed for obscurity as well, albeit after years in the full sun of total market dominance. Reportedly, Victor lost money in two out of the last three fiscal years and is also anticipating losses for the year that ended March 31. We’re in the DVD era now, for at least the marketplace.
Or perhaps the timing of the demise is not ironic, but deliberate — a message from Sony that Betamax was a product it was proud of, despite the product’s utterly ignominious performance. That’s special.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.