SPOTTING BETA IN THE MEDIA
(Or: Does VHS get equal coverage?)
It doesn't happen a lot but the interesting thing is that it happens at all. Why does the Betamax and Beta tapes show up from time to time in movies and the media? They aren't put their by accident. Maybe it is done to reference a technology for a bygone era. Maybe it to place a time stamp on the subject being presented, because Betamax is a part of history. It was a sensation when it was introduced back in 1975 because it allowed John Q. Public the luxury of recording off-the-air programming and playing it back at a later date. No longer was the TV viewer a slave to the network programming. One of Sony's early visions for Betamax to eliminate the expensive and inconvenient chemical processing required to make home movies. Their Portable Beta recorders and cameras, and later their Betamovie, made movie making simple and easy for the average consumer. Instant movies, instant playback, it was a terrific breakthrough. When Hollywood started renting their movies the "Video Revolution" began. Home video became a lot bigger than Sony could have ever imagined. VCRs became a commodity. So it stands to reason that anytime Hollywood or the news media wants to make a statement about those early days of video recording, Betamax expresses it best. Here are some Hollywood movies where Betamax has made an appearance, with a link that opens to show a relevant scene:
There are other appearances out there. Do you know of one to add to the list?
WHERE DOES THIS CARD GO?
(Or: How to do you un-solve a problem?)
When Sony introduced the Slimline design Betas (also called the E-Z Betas) a new feature was added to some of the higher end units called Auto-On. This feature was carried over to later units as well. It operated like this. When a tape was inserted into the cassette compartment the VCR would automatically turn itself on and take the tape inside. For a while Sony made units that had Auto-On and some that didn't. This seemed to create a problem. Some owners were expecting their Betas to turn on automatically when they didn't. And they were also cramming the cassette in too hard and breaking the loading mechanism. Sony's solution was to place a fold-over card in the front of the cassette compartment for machines that didn't have Auto-On. To see the card and its placement click here. This card cautioned first time users that they needed to turn on their machine before using, and to avoid using excessive force when pushing the cassette into the compartment. It also warned in big bold letters to remove the card before first operating the machine. This ended up only trading one problem for another. Many owners simply ignored the card altogether and pushed it inside the machine along with the cassette. This caused the VCR to jamb and spit the cassette back out, leaving the card stuck inside. It also stopped future tapes from being accepted. Not a good PR move. Sony quickly stopped shipping machines with this warning card. The problem went away when all the newer units featured "Auto-On" and the cassette receiver was redesigned to better protect itself.
TABS ON YOUR TABS
When Betamax first arrived all the video
cassettes were made by Sony. There were only two lengths available, thirty
and sixty minutes (the only speed then was Beta I). They were labeled
the K-30 and the K-60. When slower speeds were introduced the names changed
to L-250 and L-500 and two more lengths were added, the L-750 and L-830.
The cassette shells themselves didn't differ much over time. This is because their size, shape
and internal components had to meet Sony's stringent compatibility requirements.
But there were two internal items that were changed after several years
of manufacture and I want to bring the old design to your attention because
they are beginning to cause some serious aggravation. This information will
be very important to you if you have any of these early cassettes. I wish
I could give you some production dates or codes to identify the guilty
cassettes but those aren't available so we will have to go at this the hard
way, by internal inspection. Taking you through this is going to require
some pictures for parts identification and repair steps, so this discussion
will continue in a special panel that you can open by clicking here.
IS THE BETAMAX MAKING A COMEBACK?
(Or: What about those prices lately on ebay?)
Have you seen the prices that some of the Beta units are commanding lately on ebay? Are there really that many people that wanting to convert their Beta tapes to DVD that it would drive prices so high? I'm sure that this accounts for some of the interest but it can't explain all of it.
Consider this, to most peoples minds all you need is just your basic unit for converting tapes yet some of the highest priced auctions are for units that have features that are clearly are not just for playback. The digital units (SL-HF810D, SL-HF840D, SL-HF860D and SL-HF870D) are doing very well. They are somewhat rare, and this may be a factor, but it could mean they are being snapped up for other reasons. Like their collectivity or for their entertaining special effects. The last units made also do very well. These are the SL-HF2000, SL-S600 and the SL-HF2100. The feature laden SL-HF750 and SL-HF1000 also have a good following. Even the professional units, that have no tuners or timers, are being gobbled up. But selling the best are the low end units. The ones being used just for transferring tapes to DVDs. Some of these are auctioning off for more than they cost new (not allowing for inflation, but still impressive).
I'm sure one big factor for this activity is because the source for good reliable beta units is very limited. Finding something dependable can be a bit dicey (through sources other than my Website). The tested and well promoted Betas are doing better than the "as-is" or unknowns. Naturally those being sold for parts go for cheap, if at all.
This new attention will surely fade. But for now the used Beta business seems to be holding its own. Could Beta make a comeback? Stranger things have happened. Take the new interest in vinyl recordings that is developing. Once thought to be totally dead Sony just announced the opening of a new pressing plant for making LPs, citing a resurgence of demand for tunes pressed in plastic. Audiophiles claim that recordings in vinyl have a better sound than digital and they are even willing to pay more for them. Turntable sales, almost nonexistent a few years ago, are also picking up. Could this happen with Beta? Maybe if people rediscover how friendly it is to use and how smooth playback is compared to DVDs (or VHS)? It is very doubtful. Only time will tell. For now Beta fans will have to satisfy their hunger for their format by shopping for used or refurbished machines. (For more information on transferring Beta to DVD see the first question in the "Ask MisterBetamax" section.)
THE FAMOUS SONY BETAMAX LAWSUIT
(Or: Is this battle ever going to be over?)
Before the famous Betamax case, when Sony was sued by Universal Studios, The Disney Company, et. al. over movie rights, things were much simpler. There were movies, but the public has no easy way to own them, store them or copy them. So the main weight of copyright protection was centered around the music industry, music was easy to record.
Two main associations took on the responsibility of insuring that songwriters, composers and publishers were paid for the use of their talents. One was BMI (Broadcast Music,Inc.) and the other was ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). Royalties from records and sheet music was pretty straightforward but things became a little dicey when it came to the playback industry (ie: jukeboxes, radio stations, concerts). Jukeboxes were supposed to tabulate how often a certain record was played. The system was never accurate so a blanket payment plan was formulated to cover the gray areas.
Concerts would be figured according to ticket sales. Radio airplay was totaled using sampling. Two weeks out of every year a radio station was required by the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) and other industry groups to monitor or keep a playlist log of each song played over the air (even if used as the background in a commercial). From this information computations were made for charging the radio station royalties that could be distributed to the various artists and talents involved. These same association also monitored and produced similar results for the television industry.
Everything was going along swimmingly until Sony came up with the Betamax and made it possible to record television programs and movies. Now there was a new threat. This was an area where laws hadn't been decided and no one played by any set ground rules. Before video recording movies had been especially hard to duplicate using film, so pirating was a rarity. So it wasn't the media people they didn't didn't trust, they had rounded them up years ago, it was the common people, the public (and the supposed black market of pirated content that they thought might develop) that was going to keep the entertainment moguls up at night.
At the very first it didn't matter. Recording off of tv was a curiosity. Kind of a magic trick. But a company calling itself Magnetic Video went to several studios and asked if they could sell video taped movies (and give them a kickback). They said yes and it was opened a whole new can of worms. To everybody's surprise the tapes began to sell. Suddenly the studios putting out the movies had to make excuses to the others that hadn't said it was okay. They hadn't agreed to release any of theirs movies and they weren't making any money off this deal. The stock answer by the studios selling tapes was: we didn't think anyone would actually buy any of these things. Who would want to see old movies anyway, selling tickets for today's films is what we are all about. Whoops! Hold the phone! These video tape recorders can make copies of our movies and we will lose a sale and money. Didn't see that one coming. We have got to stop this right now. Who invented this recorder thing, anyway. Sony, they're the ones, let's sue them and make them either a) stop making them or b) make their units so they won't record our movies. And while were at it, let's get a decision on just what these recorders can and can't legally record. It will all be good, after we nail Sony the other maker(s) will also follow suit. Two birds with one stone. (At this time Betamax was the big seller and VHS was just sitting in their lair, sort of like a spider.)
VHS, to avoid all this controversy, just up and put a special chip in their machines. One that would prevent recording if the tapes included a recording scheme called "Copyguard" This was so the newly invented protection system would stop their machines from recording content that was copyright protected. Recording stuff off the air was sort of okay, but copying movies was out with VHS. They were happy to just sit this one out and watch all legal posturing. Sony on the other hand was now going to do battle with Universal Studios and the Disney Company. This lawsuit thing had now turned into something beyond the movies (partly because of Copyguard) now it was about the right to record ANYTHIING (except home movies of the family). Sony, in defiance, did not put a Copyguard chip in their machines. They didn't think they had done anything wrong, besides the issue hadn't been decided. Of course, After a long fight Sony won us the right to record anything we wanted, so long as it is for our own private use. By then all the movie studios used Copyguard so VHS was locked out from dubbing recorded motion pictures (as a concession they made to garner Hollywoods favor). We, the public, in turn weren't actually allowed own the movies. Every DVD and factory movie tells tell you this at they very beginning of every copy ad nauseam. Nobody in the entertainment industry cared too much for this arrangement because they had lost control, but the public now had permission to record what they wanted without fear of the VCR police. (To see a cartoon that was a sign of the times click here.) The public, in turn, rewarded Sony for this legal triumph by promptly making their competitor the number one selling video format. Beta was killed off and VHS lived on. One side note: Sony seemed to come out it okay. They purchased Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star Pictures for 3.4 billion in 1989. After that they started putting a Copyguard chip in their Beta models. After all, they were in the movie business now, baby.
COMPARING SONY TO APPLE
(Or: Is there a lesson in here, somewhere?)
What good is history anyway? Can we really learn from it and apply what has happened in the past to the future? Is there something to be learned from Sony's grief at the loss of Beta at the hands of VHS. Or Apples tenacious crewing away at the windows/PC market. Certainly one thing Sony learned was don't sell what you think is a flawed and clunky recording system to a hungry competitor. Almost everybody that visits this Website knows that Beta VCR production ended in 2002. Sony finally gave in to VHS saying that Beta sales numbers no longer justified keeping it around any longer. So now it's several years later and VHS, too, is almost gone. Looking back it seems that a company with the resources of Sony could of stuck it out up until the end. Maybe there might have been a market for a Beta to DVD unit? Especially when one considers that many people accepted the Beta format (early on) as their choice for recording special moments with their children, loved ones and friends. The Beta format, because of its compact size and ease of use, aggressively went after the family recording market. Portability, low cost per hour and editing capabilities were used to promote video recording over 8mm film, and then later on over the inferior VHS format (from Beta's point of view). It was true and it worked, it sold a lot of Beta units. But this is now and the people that bought into this marketing concept have a narrow range of options should they want to relive those precious moments recorded on Beta. They no longer have the option of purchasing a new unit to play them on. The MisterBetamax Site is repeatedly approached by people who just want something, anything to play back their memories (their unit no longer works or is gone). It seems sad that their options are so limited. Even though the MisterBetamax Company makes it possible for many folks to view their old recordings through my repair services and refurbished units, it would be much better if Sony still made Beta VCRs. It just seems that a company as formidable as Sony could have taken a more passionate approach and at least continued to make one unit available for the long haul, for folks that still had archives of memories on Beta tape and wanted a machine to plat them on. Would this have hurt their bottom line very much? From a PR standpoint would it have hurt or helped their image? Here's another thought. Would Sony have decided to end Beta if Akio Morita, the champion of Beta, had still been around in 2002?
How does this compare with Apple? There are some interesting similarities and just as interesting differences. This is a company that really fell from grace and was virtually wiped out when the windows operating system exploded onto the scene. It wasn't so long ago that Apple was all but washed up. Just like the Beta format people the only ones that took them seriously were the ones that loved them. Sony never suffered as a Company as did Apple. (There was a time when you could scoop up Apple stock for less than five bucks a share. It sells for more than twenty-five times that now.) But the extreme rise from oblivion for Apple illustrates what can happen when you know your the best, make the best and don't abandon your die hard supporters. I know it seems like I'm being pretty hard on Sony here but I knew their format was better. Not only I knew it, but so did virtually everybody serious about video recording. Broadcasters used Beta. The United States government used Beta. Schools, municipalities, the surveillance and records industry, the automobile industry, and corporations and businesses used Beta. Even the public knew it was better. It was looked upon as the choice of the professional. But there was soon to be more to video than recording. A huge rental industry was born and tape recorders exploded into the marketplace and into the homes of almost everybody. VHS would end up victorious because it was cheap and easy to make. The VHS design made it very simple to make. Loading tape only requires two moving levers. They carry two blocks with pins on them. These withdraw the tape from the shell and presses it around the video drum. Over simplified? Yes, but the system required less parts and less precision than Beta does. It threads the tape around drum in a circle and uses fewer sharp angles. Less friction so the tape stays inside the machine during all functions. The biggest downside to VHS is the tape can't stay in the tape path at all times because it handles it too rough. Searching for something on a VHS tape is a nightmare, with the constant back and forth threading. But this objection didn't matter much if all your were going to do is watch a movie. Even better, rewind is in the shell, not in the machine. Because VHS was mechanically less complicated it was easier to license. This made for a lot of manufacturers and that made VHS very available. Beta would lose out in the mass market because of price. Beta had the features and the quality, but that didn't do much to slow down VHS. Early on the rental industry offered Beta, because it was already well established when rentals first became available, but soon they would only offer VHS (then DVD). Sony promoted Beta strongly at first and stuck with it for a long time. To their credit they produced (and still produce) some of the most innovative products in the world for video recording. Much of it over the heads of the people buying the majority of the recorders and tapes.
There is a similarity of sorts between Sony and Apple. With Apple it was having the bulk of the computer world go over to the windows platform. Like Sony, Apple stuck it out. They plugged away and continued to please their customer base. They innovated with new products relating to their core business of making great products and providing an excellent operating system or platform. It took some time but it eventually paid off handsomely for Apple. Sony isn't doing too bad either. But Sony was never beaten down as bad as Apple. Sony built their consumer business on game stations, color television, radios, Watchmans, Walkmans, along with the Betamax and Betamovie. Apple went from computers, to laptops, to ipods, to itunes, to iphone. Many successes, and giving up on products is not new to either of them. (Newton and Lisa for Apple, DAT and Video 8 for Sony). But they are big companies and they keep moving forward. But Apple has gotten a lot bigger lately. Is this their reward for sticking to your guns when you know you have a good thing? Maybe so. Beta was supposed to be the better format and Apple is supposed to be preferred by those that want to enjoy computing. But there's more to Sony than Betamax, and now there's more to Apple than a computer and an operating system. But when Apple almost went down the tubes it was struggling for it's very existence. When Beta died Sony only lost it's market share.
I have a Mac and a PC sitting here in my work area and I use them both. And of course I use Beta for all my recording, and I do a good bit. But I can't help but wonder, couldn't (shouldn't) the outcome for Beta have been different? I'm not saying that Sony should still be fighting for market share but instead maybe shifted their position to one of providing a product for people who would still like to use Beta. Beta wasn't like eight tracks or LPs. It wasn't like the bubonic plague. A lot of people believed in Sony and preferred Beta over VHS. Nothing better has come along. The newest recording methods are technically better but awkward. They require several devices plus software to perform a simple recording task. I know that's a slight exaggeration, but you know... my Beta just sits there waiting for me to pop in a tape and press play. What could be easier?
THE HISTORY OF BETA I, II AND III
(Or: Which speed is really best?)
Ever since the first Beta was introduced in 1975 there has been a ongoing debate among Betaphiles about which speed is the best to record in order to produce the best picture results. Audio doesn't seem to be as big an issue but in this article we will also take this into consideration, but to a lesser degree.
A little history please. The first consumer Betas where the LV-1901A and the SL-7200, in that order. Both recorded only in Beta I (which is approx. 3 3/4 inches per second) and only for one hour. They were primitive by today's standards but a miracle to people that wanted to time shift television. These two consumer units were the only ones that had large video heads designed to record a scan meant for Beta I. (I know some of you are thinking of the BMC-1000 Betamovie and yes it had heads the same size of the first betas but it was a different animal. We'll come back to it later when this discussion covers SuperBeta.) The reason for using the large heads was the technology wasn't developed at that time for making smaller ones. Tape wasn't as good then either and larger video heads meant that many of the dropouts and tape imperfections would have less of an impact on performance due to the wider recording area. Soon after Sony introduced LV-1901A and the SL-7200, which were in short supply (as was the tape), RCA started selling the two speed VHS "SelectaVision" recorder (the VBT200 came out October 1977). Improved (smaller) video head manufacturing now made it possible for this unit to record up to four hours on one (larger than Beta) cassette. Sony countered this move with a two speed unit of their own, the SL-8200. It had heads optimized for Beta II, as did other two other models that came out shortly after it, the SL-3000 portable and the SL-8600 (the only Beta II only home recorder). Beta II ran at half the speed of Beta I and the heads in these units were half the width of those in the SL-7200. A longer cassette, the L-750 was soon released which allowed up to three hours of recording in Beta II. So how was the picture of the SL-8200? Judging from improvements to come later, not that good, but still better than VHS and nearly as good as the SL-7200 due to improved tape handling and smarter electronics. The 8200 could record and play in Beta I and II. The SL-3000 portable recorded and played in Beta II but could only play Beta I. From this point forward the battle between Beta and VHS was more about recording time than it was about quality. Sony made a big deal about how Beta had a superior picture but we all know how it turned out. Shortly after these units hit the market came the Beta III speed. The tape travel was reduced again and so was the head size. VHS was marketing units with six hour capability in the XLP or SLP mode. Each time the tape was slowed down the audio quality would drop, as would picture stability and tracking ability. Tape continued to improve. Now the area the heads were scanning had become extremely tiny. Beta III was to be the last speed reduction. Soon Sony gave up on trying to beat VHS on recording time and settled on picture quality, sound improvements and superior features, which Beta surely had in it's favor until the end. So which overall speed triumphs as the preferred compromise overall? SuperBetahi-fi in BII would get my vote. Super Hi-Band BIs is the best but it yields inconvenient recording times. BII still renders a great picture, good sound control and running stability. BIII seems to be a little bit fussy so I don't use it. Plus the machine has to be it top condition to run BIII with certainty. So I can only rely on what others have told me and that is this: "It still beats the SLP mode in VHS. TTFN.
SAVING THOSE MEMORIES TO DVD
(Or: Is there any way to really do this?)
Here's a question that keeps an archivist up at night. How does one store valuable information so it's accessible, always safe and always viable. All across this nation millions of tons of paper resides in record rooms, evidence lockers and private homes. Paper remains the primary way memories of our past existence is recorded and stored. From the present day info of court records, IRS files, corporate minutes and the like all the way back to Roman times we have relied on paper to keep records. But paper is not forever. The burning of the library at Alexandria shows that irreplaceable history can disappear in a matter minutes when it's stored on paper (papyrus). Our own Declaration of Independence is fading away. So how about stone for information storage? It offers a pretty stable platform for record keeping. The Rosetta stone held up pretty good over the years but even stone carvings, if left to the elements, fall into dust (it takes a good while). Besides, sending the IRS a 1040 carved in stone would be impractical and hard for the employees to handle. Imagine the muscle bulk necessary for Postal workers, sorting clerks and tax agents to deal with stone tablets. Funny to imagine. What about digital. 1's and 0's stored on a magnetic disk. Digital, is this the best way to go? As long as the disks don't encounter a strong electromagnetic disturbance they should do fine, right? No one knows for sure because it is difficult to know exactly how things hold up over a long time. Time study requires, well, a lot of time. Can't speed time up very easily. So how about storing digital information on a disk using a laser that burns ones and zeros (as tiny pits) on a optically sensitive surface. Now your talking! Compact, stable, durable and able to store massive amounts of information. But how do CDs and DVDs hold up relative to time? It depends on many factors but as of this writing the ones pressed from a master (such as factory made music, movies and software) do pretty well. That is to say manufactured digital media seems to last indefinitely, as long as it isn't scratched, broken or burned. The recordable CDs and DVDs may not do as well. It seems the same light that stores the information can destroy it as well. Recording a DVD uses special light from a laser, but there are components in ordinary light that can adversely affect recordable DVDs. So, store them in the dark? That's better, but still not a perfect answer. Not all light is visible to the eye and light rays are not the only rays flying through the air that can trouble recordable DVDs. Since the medium sandwiched inside the plastic plate is a light sensitive dye, even playing the disk can be a problem. The laser must strike the dye (where those ones and zeros reside as pits) in order to read it and over an extended amount of time damage can be done and information can be lost. It may take years, but we are looking at archiving information for the long haul. So it would seem that one may need to make several copies and then place them in several temperature controlled lead vaults away from any light, to insure their ultimate survival. Let's also include a stable, humidity controlled environment with no pressure or mechanical stress. Would you have the perfect time capsule then? If our precious information were to upgraded each time a new storage method came along could it last forever? Only time would tell. (Editors Note: MisterBetamax can now transfer your Beta tapes to DVD. To inquire about this service use the "Contact MrBetamax" form. Also be sure to read the first question in the "Ask MisterBetamax" section.)
BETAMAX TO BLOCKBUSTER
If your curious about the video rental revolution that took place after the introduction of the VCR, then Joshua Greenburg's new book "From Betamax to Blockbuster" offers up some interesting reading. In it he chronicles the steady progression of consumer video (after the introduction of the Betamax) from a small cluster of videophiles all the way up to the video rental business. Many of us lived through this revolution and will find this book interesting reading. What isn't in the book is the story of how Betamax came to be, what the Universal vs. Sony lawsuit meant to the general public, and how Sony lost out to VHS in the long run. He does go into detail about how the rental business made the content more important than the device it was played on, which in turn contributed to the demise of Beta (promoted as the format for the quality conscious). This progression of the public's adoption of the VCR as a movie playing instrument instead of a time shifting device is the books main subject. The complete story of the development, struggle and eventual demise of the Betamax will have to come another time.
MR. BETAMAX HAS PASSED AWAY.
From the New York Times May 2008: The Sony boss who doubled the size of the outfit's US operations, despite championing the failed Betamax video recording system, has died at the age of 80. Harvey Schein, was one of the first 'Europeans' to be a top name in a big Japanese company. He was recruited by Akio Morita, the visionary co-founder of Sony, who believed that Sony's American subsidiary needed an American chap in charge. Schein led Sony America from 1972 to 1978. He was famous for being highly successful while his rule was stormy. The fact that his management style was described as 'abrasive' and 'colorful' might have had something to do with this. In 1975, Sony introduced Betamax, a video cassette recording system superior in almost every way to VHS. While this still ended up losing the recording market Schein became involved with in a legal battle with Disney and Universal that ended up allowing people to make home recordings of television shows and sparked the home video boom. According to available financial information, during his term Schein increased Sony's annual sales from $300 million to $750 million. However he was often at war with Tokyo which didn't like him chasing a fast buck in favor of more longer-term thinking. After leaving Sony he went to Warner Communications and then became president of Polygram.
Do you have a story, comment or know of an article pertaining to the Beta format that you would like to share? If you think other Beta enthusiasts would enjoy reading about it, send it to me. Supply the information, publication or link and I will check it out. If it fits the formula for "The Beta Format News" then I will publish it in this column. To open an easy to use submission form click here. Thank you for your interest.