A BETAPHILES STORY
It's all my wife's fault. Back in 1975 she arranged the adoption of our first Betamax. It was an early Christmas gift for me and of course it was a
Growing up I was fortunate that my dad had a television repair business. TV was still pretty new when I was a kid and I would often go along with him on his service calls. I would watch as he took the back off the TVs and removed the tubes and checked them. I wanted to help so that soon became my job. It always seemed to impress his customers when they saw a ten year old use a tube checker. And what a thrill it was for me. I never developed a fear of what was inside a TV (but I was mindful of that high voltage section he warned me numerous times to watch out for). I would also spend time with him at his shop and if I was lucky, even helped out a little. I doubt he benefited much from my services but I certainly got a lot out of it. I developed a craving to learn about all the technical mysteries of life, which included electronics. My dad also assembled various types of test equipment he needed for his repair business. He purchased these from the Heathkit Company. They were a firm that offered electronic test gear and home electronics items in do-it-yourself kit form. By following their detailed instruction manual you would assemble it yourself, test it, and learn how it operated. My first kit building experience was an AM radio he bought me, which didn't work on the first try because I had made several "cold" solder joints. (Wires I had soldered together that looked okay but didn't get hot enough to make a good connection.) Dad checked everything out and showed me where I had made my mistakes. After I corrected them and it worked. Let me tell you nothing inspires a kid more than putting something together and having it come to life. Over the next few years I put together more equipment, because now my dad was letting me build all his test equipment. Even though those Heathkits told you every step to make I was still able to pick up some knowledge along the way, and a lot of confidence. It instilled in me that "I can do" feeling, and I was getting pretty good at it. When started high school I went right for the sciences, math and the technical stuff. I also got into cars, drag racing and girls. It was the sixties, man...and it was good to be a teenager. About midway into my junior year I met my wife to be. She was beautiful, just over five feet tall and everything a young man could ever hope for or dream of.
After graduation my first job was on a production line building cars for Chrysler. The fascination of seeing automobiles come together was fascinating. And just perfect for the sixties, when drag racing, drive-ins and car hops were all the rage. The down side was that it was in a city two hours away from my future wife. I stuck with it long enough for her to graduate from high school and then I headed back to my home town to become a happily married man.
Shortly after we found an apartment we both set about looking for work. My wife took a full time job at fashion clothing store were she had worked part time during high school. I found a job as a laboratory assistant at a local state sponsored research facility. After their grant ran out I took employment running a photographic lab for a printing press manufacturer. It was during this time that a local radio station ran an ad asking if anyone was interested in becoming a radio announcer. I thought that sounded cool and I had the recording equipment (as you might expect) so on a whim I sent them a tape of me playing records and reading news copy. So began my career as a radio announcer. The station was in a fairly large market so I didn't get a job there. I was too green but with their help I did find a gig at a small, low wattage station nearby and worked there for about a year. I sent out numerous demo tapes and landed a position at the top rocker (slang for top-40 pop station) in a nearby major city. It meant that the wife and I would have to move, but we were young and willing to try new things. I spent the next six years as the top nighttime DeeJay in that market, and I loved it! It was the time of the Beatles, Elvis, Woodstock, and two little additions to my family. Unfortunately, it was also the era of the Vietnam war. But I was one of the very fortunate "Kennedy married's" and was never called to go to war, something I never regretted. I do, however, have a great respect for those that went because it was a thankless, bitter conflict that didn't come to a very happy conclusion. Many of my friends went and I made it a point to tell them how meaningful their sacrifice was and what it meant to me and our nation. This is something we should all do. Towards the end of my DeeJay days it became apparent to me that to move up in broadcasting would require that I be a gypsy and migrate from market to market, something I was getting less willing to do now that I was a father with a beautiful little girl. So I tried my hand at selling radio advertising rather than playing it. That would begin the next and longest career, but more on that later. What happened to my interest in electronics during this time? It was in it with both feet and it tied in well with the radio business. I studied for my first class radio telephone license test but only took and passed the first of the three part examine. Color television was just becoming popular so I built a Heathkit TV and it was great fun, and it worked (to everyones amazement). Hard to believe that color TV was ever new and unusual.
It was during my early disk jockey years and around the time I built the television that I became interested in the possibility of recording TV programs off-the-air. The only devices that could perform that feat at this time were large and made exclusively for the broadcast industry. There were some smaller reel-to-reel machines but they only recorded an hour and of course only could handle a studio type video source. That is, they had no tuner to pick up TV signals. But I was fortunate because our city was large enough to have several professional electronics stores and I was able to talk with the service technicians about the Sony broadcast VTRs that they were selling and servicing. I had purchased a small portable black and white Sony television before buying the Heathkit and was very impressed with it. (I reasoned that because it was a portable, it would still be useful later when I moved up to the twenty-five inch color console I was planning to build later.) So these video recorders were made by a name I recognized and respected. But how could one get these things to record signals off-the-air? The guys at the store didn't have an answer. They envisioned there were too many obstacles to overcome in making it consumer friendly. Such as maintaining proper video and audio signal levels or how to make it easy to operate. Little did we know that it was all about to be taken care of.
I was getting into it big time now and I remember reading all the electronic equipment magazines and discovering that something was up, something big was coming. A local appliance store ran an advertisement about a video recorder and they actually had one in their store. I grabbed the wife and we rushed down to look at it. It was really big, expensive and impractical. It also didn't catch on. It was one of those early failed formats. Next came the Sanyo
My wife called me at work to tell me the rep was at her store and he had the Betamax with him. He said he had stopped by to see if she still wanted it. He felt he was doing us a favor and giving us a chance to change our minds, since it was so expensive. But I had done my homework and was satisfied it was what I wanted. We had already borrowed most of the money to pay for it so we were committed. I talked with him on the phone and made arrangements to stop by his motel that evening to pick it up. Time crawled by but finally I drove over and knocked on the door. He invited me in and showed me the unopened shipping carton sitting on the table. It was huge! He said it weighed a ton. I asked if he would mind if I examined it before completing the purchase. He agreed, saying he too was curious, so we opened the box and checked the interior contents together. Next we sat the carton on the floor, removed the Betamax and sat it on the table. He and I looked it over. It was still big, even out of the box. Upon examination everything seemed in order so I handed him the check. It was a large amount. We were lucky that buying through the company my wife worked for got us a discount off the $1495.00 suggested retail price. But even so, the draft was for $1250.00. Check this out, factoring in for inflation that 1975 money comes to a total of $4912.50 in 2014! What a deal! So I was now the proud owner of one of the first
When I got home that evening my wife was waiting to see what I had purchased and we packed the box into the house. She was anxious to find out about it so we took it out of the carton and set it on top of the television. I got out the instruction manual and proceeded to set it up. It took about thirty minutes. When I popped in the
I purchased the two additional tapes plus the optional timer and was now regularly recording programs to watch later. I was becoming an old hand at this video recording thing. But a situation was becoming apparent. I found that there were some programs that I wanted to keep for viewing at a much later date or maybe even keep indefinitely. I began looking for blank tapes. Suddenly I found a basic flaw with being the first to have this new technology. No tapes! I had bought the only ones available. No electronics stores, retail outlets or specialty shops had any! When I asked about them, shopkeepers looked at me like I had three heads (and I don't). Even the big mail order electronics firms had none. Finally, after several months the
I don't remember exactly how many months went by before I was able to buy tapes in any quantity. I remember scouring various sources and finding just a few here and there, buying up what I could. I won't admit to being hooked but I really enjoyed being able to set my own schedule, deciding what to watch and when and being a slave to the networks. Beta machines were now selling well and demand was increasing, so before long the tape prices came down and supplies were starting to become available. Everything was going along smoothly but then a local appliance store began advertising another video format. What this? Competition for my beloved Beta? I went over and checked it out. It was the Sanyo model again except this was an upgraded version that would record up to two hours in color. It was called the
The Great Time Machine it was called. Where had I heard that name before? Wasn't that the obscure format I had looked at before buying the
I remember going over to a friends house and him showing me a device sitting on top of his
The confusing numbering designations for Beta tapes turned out to be an obstacle, one the Beta camp would eventually regret. What exactly did the L-250, L-500 mean anyway? I can look back at this early development of video recording now with the advantage of hindsight and say that it must have been very difficult to decide exactly how to educate the public about all with the changes that were taking place; and at the same time maintain the high level of professionalism that Beta wanted to project. The K-30 designation for a thirty minute tape at the BI speed made since, as did the K-60 for sixty minutes. But it would be confusing to double these when BII came along, then later, BIII. It would have been messy. The
One of the things video recording is good at is... recording. Primarily at this stage of the game this meant television programs, movies and other copyrighted stuff, and the property owners were scared. They felt everybody would start bootlegging their films, pirating their television shows, taping their sporting events and assassinating their commercials. The media industry and the artists involved could lose great amounts of revenue on account of it. (Was this a possible contributing cause for the early demise of Cartrivision?) So now Sony was going to face a new challenge. In November of 1976 a joint lawsuit was filed by the Disney Company and Universal studios naming Sony as the sole defendant. Sony was accused of making equipment for stealing the properties owned by the studios. It was up to the courts to decide if home video recording should be outlawed and the equipment for doing so be made illegal. It seems strange now, but this ended up going all the way to the supreme court (and was finally decided in January of 1984). While this legal battle was going on everybody was cranking out VCRs and most of the movie studios began jumping on the huge movie rental bandwagon (Disney and Universal did hold off for a short while). Sony ultimately won the lawsuit and won us the right to video tape what we wanted (for our own use). But it was Sony, not Matsushita, or any of the other VHS manufacturers, or any of the tape duplication labs, or the tape rental companies that fought this battle for us. Sony stood alone. But ultimately everyone ended up reaping great benefits from this landmark decision. I watched it all with great trepidation, but I was confident that the public would come out on top. While this was all going on VHS continued to gain market share on Beta and it was beginning to look like both formats were here to stay.
Shortly after the introduction BIII Sony announced that there would be no more reductions in tape speed from the Beta camp. What caused this decision was not video head size or the rigid tape quality requirements, but the tape travel speed. The slower the tape traveled in the path the more tricky it became to hold tracking center, keep the picture stable and maintain a uniform speed. Plus the audio was getting terrible. The faster the tape speed the better the audio frequency response and BIII was slow, VHS was even slower. The audio available for video tape was dull and had little fidelity. The slower speeds also limited the picture quality. VHS extra long play (the six hour mode) was only able to record about 220 lines and the picture was grainy, unstable and had questionable color reproduction. BIII was a little better with 240 lines and a sharper picture. Independent lab reports bore this out, that the slowest Beta speed did have a better recording curve than did VHS. But there was another side to these slow speeds that no one talked about, something ugly. The very negative effect that machine condition and maintenance had on performance. Both formats knew that as their units were being used they began to wear and would require periodic service. They were, after all, mechanical devices and factors like dirt, component wear and abuse would take a heavy toll. It could become a big factor, especially at the slowest speed where tracking was critical. As the formats racked up the number of hours the slow moving tape would begin to wander around in the tape path. Things that should have been perfectly flat would deform and let the tape drift out of alignment. Surfaces that should have let the tape slide evenly and smoothly over them began to cause it to drag making it difficult to pull past their components with the ease they required. Both format manufacturers were well aware of these problems and aggressively made modifications to combat fatigue and tape path wear. It made for better machines but the slowest speed always remained a problem. But all this didn't seem to matter to the general public. Cramming the most video onto a single tape was all that mattered.
Beta continued to improve. Sony was adding features and beating up on VHS, and VHS was fighting back. In addition to the added speeds there were special effects such as still, scan and slow motion. I wanted one of the new improved machines so I shelled out a small fortune for a
The company I worked for had a promotional products division and account executives were allowed to redeem bonus points they earned, based upon sales volume, for specialty merchandise. What we did with these products was left completely up to the sales force. We could use them to buy gifts for ourselves or, if we wanted, we could give the points or products to our customers as promotional gifts. We were encouraged by our area managers to return some of the earned value to our customers, and to do it sincerely. I became very close friends with some of the captains of industry and I did select several business associates to receive promotional items. As luck would have it one of the items made available to us was the Sony Betamax. I gave several away as gifts to my contacts. One in particular, that I gave away as a retirement gift, arrived to him defective. I called the promotions division and they told me it would be faster if I would contact Sony's fulfillment division direct, and gave me the phone number. I did and they gave me the name of the local Sony distributor and suggested that I take the unit to them for a replacement. This was to begin my relationship with the Sony distributor and would solidify my love for Sony, and the Betamax.
I took the defective unit to the distributor as soon as possible. When I walked in the door I noticed there was a long counter with double doors behind it and another set of double doors at the end, opposite the entrance. I had carried the unit in with me and I sat it on the counter. Very quickly a man appeared through the doors behind the counter and asked if he could help me. I explained what had happened and he remarked it sounded like a blown fuse to him but no matter, they would just replace the unit. He asked to see my delivery receipt, which I gave to him. He then proceeded down the counter and through the doors at the end. I should mention here that the receipt had my name and address on it. After a couple of minutes he came back into room, went back behind the counter and came up to me. He said for me wait a few minutes as he was going into the warehouse to get a replacement and would be right back. He went through doors behind the counter and was gone.
I glanced around and found there was a small showroom behind me with a few different Sony items on display. There was a six inch and twenty-one television, several speakers, a Betamax, and other general items. Suddenly the doors at the end of the counter opened and into the area walked someone I recognized. He walked up to me, shook my hand and asked how I had been doing since high school! We had been good friends in school and I remarked it was a real pleasure to see him again. He told me that he was the general manager and would I like to have a look around. Of course I said yes. The replacement Betamax was sitting on the counter by now and he said we would just leave it there for now, it wasn't going anywhere. We talked about old times as we walked around looking at stock, the loading area and the service area. Working on a Betamax in the repair shop was also someone I knew from school. It was like a reunion! We all agreed it was a small world and a lot had happened over time. So we talked more in the repair area and then I was asked by my manager friend if I would mind coming into his office. We sat down and he asked if I would like a soda or coffee, which I declined. He then asked me about the returned Betamax. I explained how I had obtained it through the promotions division of my company, how the process worked and how the price I paid was lower than retail. He asked how would I feel about buying wholesale from his distributorship and using my points for other things. He commented that if I was going to bring more Sony products into this area and he would prefer that I get them from him. I said that sounded great. He added that he would make available to me anything they carried, even items not from Sony. After about four hours we ended our discussion and we walked back into the counter area. I asked if it would be okay if I could say goodbye to the technician in the service area and he said that would be fine. As I walked back to the shop I heard him tell the counter person that I would be buying direct from them in the future and to get a wholesale catalog prepared for me. When I returned he went over the catalog with me and how to decipher the pink sheet codes so I could arrive at the correct wholesale price. I thanked everybody in sight again, picked up the new Betamax and left. It had been a very good day.
In the months that followed I cultivated a close relationship with everybody at the distributorship. Betamax continued to evolve and I knew of no better way to remain on top of everything than to frequent the sales and service center. I couldn't go to Japan but this was the next best thing. The first major change for Betamax was front loading. Gone was the top loading door and with the introduction of the
For the next few months I watched all the training videos, read all the service literature and studied the updates. I even managed to rack up a few hours of actual service work during vacations and free time. Soon Sony introduced the
About a month passed and I received a phone call from my business friend. He had purchased his previous employer's inventory and opened an electronics wholesale store. He could no longer wholesale Sony products but he could still repair them (as any business could) and also offer products from other brands. He was looking for someone to work on Beta (the technician that had previously worked for him was now unavailable because he was away at school working on his electronics degree). I told him that I was interested but probably not as qualified as others he could find. He countered with the argument that I had what he wanted; ambition, drive and a love for everything Beta. We agreed to limit my exposure to Beta only, even though it would mean working on machines made by other manufacturers. (He had already hired several other techs to work on TVs, VHS, stereos and other gear.) I would work from my home, order the parts I needed through him and he would provide the service manuals, updates and training literature, which I could keep. During this time I changed my full time employment. I had the same geographic area to cover but I was now working with exotic metals, elastomeric polymers and specialty coatings. It was another sweetheart deal which lasted for several years but eventually it made being a Beta specialist impractical. Besides, Sony was now handling almost all their repairs from their district service centers. My friend and I both new this was coming and in 1985 I officially parted company with their Beta repair business. I maintained a good relationship with him for a number of years after that and I was always allowed to buy the newest Betas gear at nearly cost, I even worked on a few units for him from time to time. So I added the SL-HF900 and SL-HF750 to my growing collection. Then an SL-HF860D and even an SL-HF1000. Fortunately, I was able to sell off some of my older Betas to some of my business contacts. That way I was able to keep things current, practical and under control. What I didn't get rid of were the parts, manuals and literature I was able to collect over the years. After all, who else was I going to trust to work on my treasured Betas but me?
For the next few years I was only a consumer of Beta. I did a little work on the side for friends but nothing like before. Time passed, I changed employers several times ending up as an outside sales person with a buildings materials wholesaler and once again good fortune shined down on me. As one of their top sales people I was offered a position as a manager of a branch location in South Carolina that was in trouble because of being poorly managed. It was going to be my project to turn it around and return it to profitability. It was a great deal for me because it was going to be like having my own business and having a big corporation with deep pockets as my backer. I was offered good money (more than I had even seen), profit sharing, a big yearly bonus incentive plan plus they would pick up all the expenses to move me to sunny South Carolina. So my family and I eagerly moved to the land of southern charm, friendly people and warmer weather.
I didn't get to see the branch prior to assuming the position, the current manager was still there up until the day before I was to take over. Upon inspection I found out that it was worse that I could have imagined. I'm not going to go into all grizzly details but just let me say that the inventory was way off, most of the employees were crooks and the bathroom didn't work. And those were the good points. So I step in, replaced all but two people, restocked the inventory, balanced the books, cleaned up all the customer claims and, oh yes, corrected the bathroom situation. It took about five months before we started to show a profit. I worked twelve hours a day, six days a week and never really had time to think about Betamax. Once things were humming along and all my new people were happy in their positions a curious thing happened. The home office decided to relocate all their regional supervisors, including the one that hired me. I know now that this was something that it is not all that uncommon. It clears the way for new policies, practices and also wipes away any verbal commitments made by the previous management. It also cleared the way for the company to buy me out so that I could be replaced with someone that was costing them less money. It seemed like a lousy deal after all the effort and pride I had put into turning the branch around (like they wanted) but in retrospect they did me a favor. They paid my profit sharing, my bonus for the year plus gave me several months severance pay. I wasn't alone either. The same thing happened to all the branch managers in my district. But I was now free to try something totally new and I had some breathing room for finding just the right fit.