RCA Created Video Records Too Late

It is easy to find technology success stories: the PC, DVD, and cell phone are all well-documented tales. However, it is a little harder to find the stories behind the things that didn’t quite take off as planned. As the old saying goes, “success has many parents but failure is an orphan.” [Technology Connections] has a great video about RCA’s ill-fated SelectaVision video disc systems. You can see part one of the video below.

RCA started working on the system in the 1960s and had they brought it to market a bit earlier, it might have been a big win. After all, until the VCR most of us watched what was on TV when it was on and had no other options. You couldn’t record things or stream things and f you didn’t make it home in time for Star Trek, you simply missed that episode and hoped you’d get luckier when and if they reran it during the summer. That seems hard to imagine today, but a product like the SelectaVision when it was the only option could have really caught on. The problem was of course, that they waited too late to bring it to market. The video also makes the point that the system contained a few too many technical compromises.

There’s a lot of history about RCA and its roots with the radio alternator. You can power through that section and then you get into a lesson about how phonograph records work. After all, RCA’s concept was to create a record player for video. The technical challenge, of course, is that an audio record only needs about 20 kHz of bandwidth. A video record has to hold hundreds of times that amount of data. The SelectaVision system held about 60 minutes of 3 MHz video on each side of the large platters.

Starting in 1964, by 1972 they realized they couldn’t use a standard vinyl record and even with the fragile metallized discs they were only holding about 10 minutes of video. By 1981, they had holders for the discs that could hold an hour per side. You had to shell out $500 for the player — about $1,500 in today’s money. Steep, but many readers will have paid that much for a tech gadget. The discs were about $20.

The problem of course is that the VCR — while more expensive — had four-hour tapes and had been available since the late 1970s. RCA even had its own line of VCRs called — unsurprisingly — SelectaVision. People were able to record on the VCR which made more sense, especially since there weren’t always prerecorded options for everything.

If you want to jump right to the teardown, slide over to around the 15 minute mark. The player wasn’t very complex. It is little more than a 450 RPM record player with a special pickup. That pickup used a titanium electrode that measured changes in the capacitance between the conductive disc and the pickup electrode. The discs were PVC made conductive with carbon. The depth of the groove controlled the capacitance and the player used that to generate the video signal.

If you remember records, they were prone to getting stuck, requiring a good swift kick. The player could actually kick itself using an electromagnet because it did happen pretty often. Many of the discs haven’t aged well.

We are looking forward to part two which is due out any day now. Now if you don’t mind having very short videos, you have other options. If you think the road to videotape in the home was easy, think again.

28 thoughts on “RCA Created Video Records Too Late

  1. “The problem of course is that the VCR — while more expensive — had four-hour tapes and had been available since the late 1970s.”

    Also tape could be expanded more easily by adding more (within limits) tape in the cartridge. Disc couldn’t.

    “That pickup used a titanium electrode that measured changes in the capacitance between the conductive disc and the pickup electrode. The discs were PVC made conductive with carbon. The depth of the groove controlled the capacitance and the player used that to generate the video signal.”

    Clever, although as said they didn’t age well. Reliability is important in a consumer product.

  2. The problem wasn’t that RCA created the video disc too late, the problem was that they created it. The video disc had a problem in that the discs would wear out. Laserdiscs were a great idea, since they didn’t wear out, but they were killed by the video discs. No, it wasn’t that video discs were better than the laserdisc and won out. It also wasn’t like VHS winning out over the superior Betamax due to better marketing. The problem was that people had heard about all the problems with video discs and didn’t differentiate between the two. They didn’t buy laserdisc because they thought it had all the problems that they had heard of about video disc.

    1. It’s a myth that the Betamax had superior quality. Both had slightly different compromises but in the end they both converged to the same, limited simply by the amount of information you could put on a cassette with the best technology of the time.

      Betamax was killed by Sony’s jealous licensing policies – a trick which they’ve done to all their media formats, like the MiniDisc, their MemorySticks, UMD… etc. Sony’s just too greedy and too jealous about their technology, and that ends up biting them back every single time.

      1. It was sad indeed that BluRay won over HD-DVD, but in that particular case Sony actually relented a little and let others in (first time ever?). AFAIK BluRay was technically superior anyway.

    1. It takes too long for consumers to test the reliability of products that are supposed to last decades, so pretty much everybody just lies about it. Nobody will know the difference until years later, and if the product survives that long, then they put it down to “teething problems” and hope they would have solved the issues by then.

      For products that are claimed to last a hundred years, the manufacturers actually refuse to take any responsibility for their claims. For example, a CD-R disc. It’s impossible to actually ensure it lasts for any amount of time, because the only way to test it will destroy the disc.

      1. They do accelerated life testing, so intense light, large temp swings, humidity and other methods are used to make it age quicker. Works for a lot of thing but you can’t really guarantee everything.

        1. That doesn’t solve the problem. You have 10,000 CD-Rs in a box. You pick one. How do you know this one will last a hundred years?

          The tested CDs are ideal cases, without defects or deviations, so the test can measure the properties of the materials. This however has nothing to do with the actual discs that are being manufactured by the millions, which have all sorts of random defects, pores and pinholes, poorly applied glues, deviations in the chemical mixtures… etc.

          As a result, the manufacturer can only promise you “up to” so many years, and since it’s not really going to be verifiable until a hundred years later, they can pretty much claim anything and sell you anything. Nobody trusts or expects them to last, so even if you did make good discs nobody would buy them – so they don’t and save the cost.

          1. Those they grab off the production line are just to make sure the production line works correctly. There’s too many of those to test completely – they only look for the obvious defects.

            You have the ideal case, which is what the production line should be making, and then you have the actual distribution of what you’re really getting. The lifetime predictions and promises are generally made according to the ideal case.

            That’s because the bean counters are only interested in the averages. It doesn’t matter if half the products fail to meet the promises – as long as they’re good enough that the consumers won’t complain. With the use case of a CD-R, the actual demand is from months to a couple years at best, so you can make claims of 100 years lifespan all day long – you won’t even be making the product 100 years from now and everyone involved in making the promises are long dead.

    2. I think it depends. If your internet service is not reliable or your cell phone drops every other call you will replace it. In these days, people will report it and it will drive down sales. there was a time when a company’s reputation could survive a couple of bad products but those days are rapidly waning.

      1. There’s a difference between short-term intermittent reliability (does my call drop every 5 mins? Does the disc load this time or must I eject and try again?) and long term reliability (will my phone work in 10 years? Will the disc be readable in 10 years?).
        People kick up fuss easily about the short-term problems (sometimes too much), and easily neglect long-term problems.

    1. I could see that being an impression from the Phillips point of view, but what benefit could RCA have gained? LD was an enthusiast niche product at best and RCA had no viable competing product as CED could never beat LD at anything but cheapness, which enthusiasts abhor, and the consumers by and large wanted recordability over video quality. They dumped it because it was a dead end. VHS had already won more than just the Beta fight.
      Interestingly, JVCs similar VHD system lasted up into the 90s, although never released as a consumer product in the west. It was also arguably superior to RCAs version as it had no physical stylus riding a groove. Instead of a spiral track, it had concentric rings with digital pits, which were read much like a modern optical disk, but in capacitance.

  3. As I remember there were also two sub-types of disks and players, they were CAV and CLV.
    Constant Angular Velocity and Constant Linear Velocity.

    Earlier players were one or the other, so the wrong disk in your player wouldn’t play. Later played could identify and play each type correctly.

    I know this well because my brother bought a player of one type, and most of the popular disks were the other.

  4. ICED were an NTSC or almost NTSC product, and like Video 2000 that was PAL/SECAM only I think suffered missig part of the potential market. I have never seen a CED player, on the other hand Laser Disc were rare bur both players and disces were available in malls.
    Not to mention that using a VCR for timeshifting and build a library was easy and in the ’80s in a lot of place was difficult to get prerecorder tapes.

    1. Neither were THAT rare, we had multiple laser disc players over the years, and had actually built a significant selection of Video Disks as well, but neither of the players we had for those would function for more than a few minutes.

  5. A friend had me go and respond to one of those job finder agencies postings for a tech at RCA in Indiana back in the mid seventies. Description included video disc development, I have oft wondered how long that job would have lasted. Not much.

  6. If this had come out in the late 60’s or early 70’s it probably would have killed, but ’81 was just too late. Interesting technology though, and if things had been different we might have “hipsters” today saying “DVD/Blu-Ray video just doesn’t have the same “feel” as a good old Video Disc!”

    1. I think even if it had caught on people today would not be longing for watching a movie on a Video Disc any more than they want to watch a movie on physical film at home. A well pressed and cared for audio record can sound as good or better than some digital formats today when played on the proper equipment, and certainly can exceed the hifi capabilities of a lot of consumer/prosumer gear. A Video Disc just cannot do that, it is stuck forever at NTSC resolution and color bandwidth and other color artifacting issues. There is just no way to clean it up to a point that that it could even beat a 20 year old digital format like DVD, much less a Bluray.

  7. We forget, or didn’t notice at the time, that various video devices played out before the arrival/success of VHS/Betamax.

    They disappeared, maybe cost, maybe ease of use, maybe something else. Maybe it just took time for the public to adjust from science fiction to reality.

    People seemed to want recorders, because there weren’t prerecorded tapes, but everyone could see the value of being able to record a tv show, because back then it was either “watch it right now” or “lose your chance”. Could a playback only machine swim against that current? And unless there was a decent library of prerecorded material, and not too expensive, woukd many buy a playback only device? VHS/Betamax made inroads as recording devices, by the time of commercial tapes there was already a base of machine in homes. Even then, buying movies was expensive, and a limited selection initially.

    So I suspect other factors came into effect beyond whether something was technically feasible.


  8. I worked for Radio Shack in Indianapolis, IN in 1981 and sold these players at our store. I had one moron customer that had tried to play a circular saw blade in the player. He paid for a out-of-warranty repair to get it working again! – TPM

  9. When RCA discontinued these, they sold off remaining inventory very cheaply. The library in the small (~2000 population) town where my parent’s live bought several players and a collection of discs and was loaning them out for years.

  10. I had both an RCA CED and a LaserDisc player – the “problem” was the cost of movies. Most were $60. That was 30 years ago when $60 was real money! VHS was almost as high-priced, btw.

    1. Part of the reason I bought a CED player in the summer of 1982 was because the cost of the CED discs was MUCH elss expensive than VHS/Beta tapes. They were never as high as $60 anywhere I shopped. They were about $20 to $35 for single-disc titles, and 2-disc titles were only about $40. Single-tape VHS/Beta titles were never as low as $20 back in 1982…the concept of sell-through video hadn’t quite hit yet.

      Seeing the ads and in-store demos at Sears also were part of what convinced me. There were volumes of Star Trek TV episodes available to buy at these cheap prices. For a 12-year-old kid who had no access to Star Trek reruns (and limited summer yard mowing income), this, plus the lower cost of the player and discs, it was a no-brainer.

      Of course, along comes 1984-85 with the eventual price-drop of VHS recorders, blank tapes and (importantly) rental shops to smaller towns, and everything changed.

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