How Betamax Was Going to Change Your Life, According to Sony
By Nick Greene
“There was an astronaut walking on the moon, and we were watching it on TV.”
“I didn’t see it.”
“Oh, you’re kidding me!”
So goes the conversation between two men in The Flying Clouds, a promotional film made by Sony to trumpet the incredible benefits of Betamax, their videocassette system. (The movie also reminded viewers about the miserable realities of living without Betamax, like missing out on moon landings and looking like an idiot.)
Sony launched Betamax on May 10, 1975 and, in America, it was originally only sold as part of a home entertainment combo set, housed inside a wooden console next to a 19" Trinitron color television. The whole kit and caboodle was dubbed the LV-1901, and it set people back a cool $2,495. Included in that bundle was a copy ofThe Flying Clouds, so it wasn’t a total rip-off.
LV-1901s are hard to find outside museums nowadays, but The Flying Clouds endures thanks to YouTube:
How did you live without it? How are we living without it? Oh no, am I missing a moon landing right now?
The bold quotes below are all pulled from The Flying Clouds, and each one testifies to the life-changing qualities of Betamax, a machine whose "only purpose is to serve you."
“From This Day On, With the Betamax, You Are The Controller And Preserver of Time”
In 1975 there was no home video market or industry, and Blockbuster was a full decade away from even existing. Betamax's initial purpose was solely to record programs off your television set. This was pretty remarkable at the time, hence Sony’s slightly hyperbolic claims that their machine would grant you the ability to tame the relentless flow of time.
Still, the LV-1901 had some neat features, like a timer and a dual tuner. The latter allowed you to record a show on a channel you weren't watching—something that wasn't really seen again until the advent of modern DVRs.
“You’ll Be Free From the Restrictions of Time”
Besides its ability to make you a sorcerer of time (i.e. attending your est course without missing The Six Million Dollar Man ), Sony heralded the machine's ease of use. This 1977 Betamax salesman instructional video shows how operating a Betamax was "child's play"—"child's play!"—even for luddites:
Unfortunately, mayonnaise-colored suits were not included as part of the $2,495 LV-1901 package.
“You Can Create Your Own Betamax Cassette Library Of...Every Subject: Past, Present, And Future”
The first Betamax cassettes only held one hour of video. A miniseries like 1977's Roots, for example, would have filled up over ten Betamax tapes. At $35 a pop, these cassettes weren't cheap, and owning an LV-1901 with a substantial video collection would have set you back thousands upon thousands of dollars.
“The Betamax Will Allow You to Break the Time Barrier”
A year after Betamax hit the U.S. market, JVC introduced their competitor: Video Home System, a.k.a. VHS. While VHS offered inferior video quality, it still had more than enough going for it. Early VHS tapes held twice as much as their Betamax counterparts, meaning people could record entire movies on a single two-hour cassette. Sony increased the length of Betamax tapes in the 1980s, but VHS had too strong a foothold in the market by then. The price of VHS players also plummeted at a rate faster than Betamax, and VHS was able to penetrate foreign markets more effectively than Sony’s product.
There’s a school of thought that maintains the adult film industry was a primary reason for Betamax's downfall. Sony reportedly did not permit pornography to be published on their format, whereas VHS welcomed the stuff with open arms. While handing that kind of blanket market share to a competitor didn't exactly help Betamax's cause, experts now say the effects of porn on the broader format war were negligible compared to factors like price and cassette space.
“Consider the Ultimate Conquest of Time”
We all know how this story ends. Betamax lost to VHS, which was eventually made obsolete by DVDs, which gave way to Blu-ray, which is currently being wiped off the face of the earth by digital downloads and streaming services.
We can still look at The Flying Clouds, however, for a glimpse at a time when Betamax had the world at its feet. What would have happened had it out-dueled VHS? What kind of alternate future would we be living in now? Would there still be wars? Famine? Violence?
Humanity will never know. If only we had an LV-1901—only then could we “Break the Time Barrier” and find out.