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Format War: How VHS Knocked Out Betamax

By Dillon Wallace

Over the last several decades, society has witnessed several format wars come and go. Everything from VHS to DVD to DVD and Blu-ray. And that’s just the movie side of things. Let’s not forget about the music industry – 8 track to cassette tape, cassette tape to CD, CD to streaming. It’s an illustrious history of format dominance for a period of time and then, poof, like a magician it’s gone.

But what about one of the very first format wars? The one that not everyone knows about. After all, if you were to poll 10 people on the street, how many of them would know Betamax? And actually, depending on age, how many would know VHS?

Bell Bottoms, big collars and a format war

In the mid to late 1970s, the epic format war was starting to heat up. With technology growing at a rapid rate, video tapes and video tape records were finally affordable for public consumption leading to the home theater frenzy.


First out of the gate was Sony’s Betamax, an innovative VCR format. And for nearly a year, the Betamax was flying off store shelves and onto TV entertainment centers like hot cakes. It was good. It was new. It was the first. Life was good for the Betamax, but then … a challenger from the shadows appeared.


Betamax vs VHS: A War for Living Room Dominance

The VHS was released in 1976 by JVC, and even though the Betamax had a full year to gain traction within the public eye, it wasn’t enough to beat out the more affordable VHS newcomer. Despite Betamax possessing better audio and video quality, consumers opted for the cheaper and longer recording time VHS format. Family home videos were booming in popularity in the late 70s and 80s, and the VHS offered twice as much recording time (two hours) compared to Betamax (just one hour) and at a significantly lower price tag. It turns out that the not so noticeable better audio and video quality wasn’t enough for consumers to feel the need to shell out more of their hard earned cash.


The turning point of the war

At some point, every war has a pivotal battle – one that essentially shapes the outcome of the war – spelling out a W or an L depending on what side benefits from it. For Betamax, it was its lack of relationships with motion picture companies that really put the final nail in its coffin. It was the Betamax’s equivalent of Gettysburg. Despite losing in popularity and sales to the VHS, Betamax held strong in its endeavors, but it was after JVC landed some serious relationships with motion picture companies that the end was finally in sight for poor ol’ Betamax.


By 1987, Betamax had seen its shares decrease so much that it was time to officially concede defeat and wave the white flag to its VHS challenger. The more than $5 billion dollar VCR market in the U.S. had solely centered its allegiance behind the VHS, where it would remain dominant until the second great format war began nearly a decade later in 1997, when a new challenger approached … the DVD. But that’s another story for another blog.


So, if you’ve got a stash of retired Betamax and VHS veteran tapes lying around in an old Reebok shoe box, now is the time to digitize and preserve this historical format war and all the memories it helped shape and create along the film industry’s 70’s and 80’s battlefield.
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