Video was one of the greatest democracy-increasing technological developments of recent centuries.
The first consumer videocassette was manufactured in 1964 – but it took a little longer for the consumers to get the idea. And the idea caused a war. The war between VHS and Betamax.
In 1975 Sony brought Betamax to the consumer market – generally people believe the story that Betamax was a superior product that somehow lost out to JVC’s VHS system which was launched in 1976. But is this true? It is a great point to consider, especially if you have got VHS, VHS-C or Betamax tapes kicking around the house that need to be converted.
There is no doubt that Betamax, early in its career, had almost total control of the market. So, what went wrong? The average person, wanting to make a video, usually has one of several reasons: weddings, Christmas, birthdays, other celebrations or national events.
The biggest reason that Betamax lost out was simple – the company chose to make smaller, more compact recording cassettes that lasted 60 minutes. VHS went for bigger, bulkier cassettes that lasted 120 minutes. How many weddings, birthdays, Christmases or national events last less than an hour? And if you were recording a film from the TV, would that film last less than 60 minutes? In almost all cases the answer was no.
The consumer simply chose the easiest route. Changing a cassette once when recording an event was so much simpler than changing it four times. Betamax had simply failed to meet consumer needs.
On to the next stage of video development
In 1981 IBM introduced the Personal Computer to the world… and just one year later in 1982, both Sony and JVC launched personal camcorders. ‘Personal’ is a bit of a misnomer as these original video recording systems were bulky and required all kinds of add-ons and separate bits of kit to make them work.
In 1984, Apple gave us the Mac, and life was never going to be the same again! Unlike the VHS/Betamax war, neither Windows nor Mac ‘won’ the war of personal computing, but from then on, video recording was largely related to how each individual chose to display/edit as well as record, their lives.
In 1984 JVC destroyed the remaining Betamax marketplace forever by revealing the JVC GR-C1 – the world’s first all-in-one VHS camcorder, containing an instant playback system and integrating the recording system with the camera itself, where every previous unit had required cable linkage. The JVC GR-C1 might have remained a nerd’s system of choice but for one almost accidental boost. It appeared in Back to the Future, the biggest film of 1985 and a cult movie ever since, earning itself the kind of public popularity we now call street cred – a term that had not even been invented then!
By 1990 the market for video recorders had largely settled, allowing TV to leap onto the ‘self-recording’ train and make money out of this new craze. The flagship of ‘home movie’ entertainment is You’ve Been Framed, hosted by Jeremy Beadle which launched in 1990 and required a small technical team to cope with the variety of forms in which personal recordings were submitted for TV use.
VHS transfer and Betamax transfer were the key systems at this point and the hilarious (and sometimes painful to watch) home videos submitted by viewers became primetime TV. By the time Lisa Riley took over from Beadle in the late 1990s, the first Mini-DV had arrived (1995, Panasonic) swiftly followed by Sony’s DCR-VX1000 which allowed people to transfer their films to either a PC or a Mac to edit them. This increased the need to transfer from one format to another for TV broadcast, adding Mini-DV transfer to the technical demands. Finally, by the time Harry Hill became the voice of You’ve Been Framed, the smartphone camera had been added to the roster of personal recording devices
The Camcorder as a professional film system
By 1997 when DVD-Rom and D-VHS had both been introduced, ‘citizen camcording’ had become a way of life for national events as well as personal ones.
When The Blair Witch Project hit our screens in 1999, it was notable for having been filmed on an ordinary household camcorder. Now every TV show from Sherlock to News at Ten features ‘camcording’ whether it is real footage of new events taken by people on their smartphones or highly sophisticated faking of ‘phone footage’ done in the studio with sophisticated equipment pretending to be a shaky, hand-held shot of Benedict Cumberbatch leaping out of a window.
The YouTube Generation
Today, we experience life through the eyes of other people who are present at events. Generation Z tends to ‘video’ every experience for later transmission through YouTube, Facebook or Instagram although video tapes or discs are no longer required.
We value video more than ever before, rediscovering old newsreels, finding mini discs containing salient images of the past and reliving our heritage on tape, whether VHS or Betamax. Transferring all these formats allows us to memorialise and digitise our history, making it available to future generations as well as enjoying it ourselves.