Sony can't blame anyone else for the demise of the Beta video system. It failed to market it properly, and the rest is history.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983
How Sony killed Betamax
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers
In May of 1975, a proud Japanese company unveiled the world's first home video cassette recorder. With a TV monitor at their sides, executives of Sony Corp. popped a small cassette into their new SL-6300 VCR, pressed a button and launched a revolution.
The world of personal entertainment was never the same. With that single invention, Sony changed the way we watch TV, the way we look at movies, the way we schedule our evening hours. Even the name that Sony gave to its device" -- Betamax," with its first and second syllables suggesting something both old and new -- blended into the language of the '70s as the generic term for video recorder.
It is a bitter irony, then, that the Beta format is about to disappear into the attic of history. After denying rumors for weeks, and after its last ally abandoned it in the marketing war with the competing VHS format, Sony announced that it was giving up the fight and would be selling its own VHS recorders soon.
Sony's spokesmen insisted that Beta is not dead, but everyone else in the industry believes they know better. By joining its rivals in the VHS camp, Sony is admitting that Beta couldn't make it in the marketplace.
"With Sony backing VHS, nobody will bother with Beta any more," said a sales executive for a company that used to sell Beta recorders but switched a few years ago to VHS.
"It's a public admission they went the wrong way," said a store owner in suburban Chicago.
Officially, Sony says it will continue to make Beta VCRs, and will introduce super-high-quality ED Beta recorders in North America in May. But the behind-the-scenes talk in Chicago, site of January's huge Consumer Electronics Show, made it clear that the market for regular Beta recorders has now dropped to almost zero, and the prospects of selling any ultra-expensive ED Beta VCRs are very slim.
In some ways, Sony itself is to blame for the decline and fall of Beta VCRs. Unlike its rivals, who advertised and promoted VHS recorders in every possible way, Sony cut back on the promotion of Beta recorders once they were selling well. When Sony introduced a new VCR format, the tiny 8mm system, it canceled nearly all of its Beta advertising.
The result? A weak 8mm market (only 30 percent of all recorders are 8mm types) and a dead market for Beta.
Sony also failed to recognize that many consumers buy such items as VCRs on impulse. They stroll through a store looking for one thing and end up buying something else. VHS manufacturers knew that principle well, and made sure that VHS recorders were sold in many different types of stores -- even supermarkets. Consumers who paced the aisles looking for dog food or mustard could end up walking out with a VCR.
It is easy to imagine a different scenario. Beta has at least four solid advantages compared with VHS: The picture is a bit sharper, the tape-winding mechanism can switch quickly from one mode to another, the cassettes are small enough to carry in a coat pocket or purse, and the hi-fi sound tracks don't cause any problems for high-speed duplication.
Yet only one of those advantages was regularly mentioned in Sony's ads-when they ran. The company fell back on word-of-mouth advertising, and when it comes to that kind of promotion, as the saying goes, they got what they paid for.
In the 13 years since Sony's first Betamax lit up the TV screen in Tokyo, 170 million VCRs have been sold around the world. Only 20 million have been Beta. That's only 12 percent.
At Beta's peak, other companies besides Sony were making Beta VCRs. They included Toshiba, NEC, Sanyo, Zenith, Radio Shack and Aiwa. One by one they fell away. The defection of Aiwa, the last to go, was especially painful for Sony, since Aiwa is one of its own subsidiaries.
On the bright side is the possibility that Sony will inject new competition into VHS development. If Sony decides to make Super VHS recorders -- a move that Sony is denying at the moment -- it could help push the quality higher and the prices lower. It could also help establish Super VHS, which has a broadcast-quality picture, as the new standard home video format.
It's possible that Sony will struggle on for another year or two making both Beta and VHS VCRs, but it's not likely. Areas where Beta is still popular, such as South America and the Philippines, will need new Beta VCRs for many months to come, but Sony cannot expect to support itself on those markets.
What counts to Sony is the money it has lost in the VCR wars. Whether it can take a significant share of the already crowded VHS market is unclear. but with its reputation for quality and service, Sony has a head start already.