Before DVDs, Blu-Ray discs and even VHS tapes, there was the Betamax.
I was born after the Betamax came and went. In fact, I heard more about it in terms of its demise than any kind of praise for the technology. VHS was my life right up until 2006 (although I still use it to this day). If I’d been born a few years earlier, I might have seen the shift.
What is Betamax?
Sony’s Betamax was introduced in Japan on this day in 1975. The Sony SL-6200 was the first model, which came as part of the Sony LV-1901 (as it was known in the US). It came in a teakwood cabinet, included a 24-hour timer and a camera input. The set also allowed you to record one channel and watch another which was an incredible feat back then.
Sony localised its main success in Japan and that lead to the creation of the SuperBetamax and Extended Definition Betamax, both offering better resolutions.
So why did it die?
Unfortunately, stiff competition in the West from JVC’s VHS format lead to its downfall outside of Japan. Their market share in the US rose to 60% by 1980 and left Sony in the dust. It was also cheaper to make VHS tapes in Europe, which pushed the format even further. That led to a gradual decline in Betamax tapes in the 80s, down to a market share of just 7.5% in 1986.
Failure to adapt – the true demise of Betamax
Now more of a novelty collector’s item, the simple reason why Betamax lost to VHS was Sony’s inability to cater to the general public. They wanted a medium that could record for longer, even if it meant compromising quality. Its legacy now lies in nostalgia and comedic devices.
A curious oddity is that Sony continued to make Betamax recorders right up to 2002. But there have been some influential uses of Betamax, as we covered in an article about Marion Stokes.