Every decade or so, consumers begin to get very frustrated with a mass media industry that can’t seem to settle on a specific format. Currently, people who own super high-resolution 4K televisions are wondering whether it will be HDR10 or Dolby Vision that will emerge as the leading picture quality standard. Prior to that, HD-DVDs were vying for shelf space with Blu-ray discs.
While these rivalries go all the way back to Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder for recording music (he lost out to the disc-based gramophone), only one became an outright punchline. In the 1970s, Sony’s Betamax videocassette format lost a highly contentious struggle to become the dominant home video format to JVC’s VHS standard.
One of the major reasons? American football.
In terms of quality, there was no comparison. When Betamax tapes and machines debuted in 1975, they offered vibrant colors and sharp renderings of pre-recorded and homemade cassettes. VHS, which debuted in 1977, was bulkier and flunked most head-to-head evaluations of the two formats.
But there was a compromise that consumers had to live with if they opted for Betamax’s sharper image: Tapes were only an hour in length, which meant that buying or recording movies required juggling two cassettes. VHS, on the other hand, offered two hours of recording space—plenty of time for many feature films.
Sony was confident consumers would value picture quality above all else. And in today’s market, where televisions can reveal virtually every pore on a person’s face, that strategy makes sense. But early adopters were more concerned with how practical these new devices were, a fact that Sony didn’t appear to prioritize. When American hardware manufacturer RCA expressed interest in producing cassette recorders, they knew that U.S. consumers would want to record sporting events for delayed viewing. Because American football broadcasts can often exceed three hours, RCA told Sony they needed a cassette that could accommodate the games.
Sony was indifferent. They didn’t want to give up picture quality in exchange for length. But Matsushita, which partnered with JVC to make VCRs, saw the logic in it. RCA’s first machine, the VBT200, allowed users to slow the VHS tape down to create four hours of recording time. Football fans could time-shift games, recording them to watch whenever they liked.
That wasn’t the only reason VHS eventually superseded Betamax: Sony’s machines were expensive, whereas JVC was happy to let other manufacturers make units and engage in more competitive pricing. VHS tapes and machines were plentiful, and even though Sony eventually caught on and offered Betamax machines with longer recording options, the format soon retreated into a small sub-category of professional A/V technicians. Sony made their last Betamax unit in 2002 and the last tapes in 2015.