At Home Video : An Amazing Revolution, part 1 (to DVDs)

This black and white television, complete with rabbit ears, was state of the art for 1955 (the year I was born).  As for watching movies at home, that was completely impossible to the point of being utterly unthinkable.

This is a two part introduction to a new series that looks at the current ideal compromise point between ridiculously priced futuristic technologies that really provide little or no measurable enhancement to your video watching enjoyment at one extreme, and continuing to use obsoleted equipment without realizing how much it has been superseded at the other extreme.

This first part of the introduction takes us from early at-home viewing through to the roll-out of DVD technology, in other words, from about the 1970s through to the turn of the century.  The second part, which continues on to the present day and looks at likely future developments in home video too, can be seen here.

As I age, I find myself increasingly interested in the past – perhaps unsurprising because, to be blunt, I have more past than future.  In this case, the evolution – perhaps even revolution – in at-home video has been an extraordinary journey that we’ve all enjoyed over the last 40 years or so, and when we pause to look back, appreciating how much things have changed and improved is surprising in its immensity.

I’ll start talking about the present and future in the next article.  Skip this article if the past is of no interest.

Home Video Prior to the Late 1970s

I remember touring a stately home in England – Broadlands, the former home of Earl Mountbatten of Burma until his death in 1979.  As part of the tour, the guide proudly took us to a room which was a small movie theater, and explained to us that Mountbatten, his wife, and friends would sometimes arrange to have a private showing of a movie at home.  There were movie projectors at one end, a screen at the other end, and of course, seats in the middle.

This amazed me, and was perhaps the part of the home that I most envied.  Never mind the elaborate other rooms, they were merely bigger, better and more numerous versions of my own humble abode and lifestyle.  But a private theater, and being able to watch “real” movies – back then that was something totally out of reach of the rest of us.

Home Video Part 1 :  The Debut – (VHS) Video tape cassettes

(Note that the dates on all these events are somewhat soft and fuzzy, because there is always a gap between the first announcement of a new product, its initial introduction, and the point where it becomes affordable and commonplace.)

Perhaps you too remember when movies first started to become available on VHS tapes – what a wondrous miracle that seemed to be, and the astronomical prices being charged to buy a movie even seemed fair – after all, you were buying your own personal copy of a real movie, something you could watch at home whenever you wanted to, at no further cost.  But do you remember the several different steps that took us from the dawn of VHS tapes to the point where we could buy VHS movies for $10 or less, and rent them for $1 or less?

During the first half of the 1980s, movie studios would sell you a movie on VHS for slightly less than $100, and back in, say, 1982, a $100 cost then would be the same as paying about $282 now.

Eventually the movie studio executives apparently read a book on basic economics and “elasticity of demand curves”.  They came to realize they could make more money by selling many more copies of a movie, but for less money each, than by selling very few copies at very high prices (as an example, ten copies at $25 each instead of one copy at $100), so prices started to drop.

Dropping prices also meant reducing costs to manufacture the video cassettes and duplicate the movies, and pricing dropped further and further, with some movies – old movies that no-one would really want to watch – being sold for as little as $5 each in bargain bins at Walmart and elsewhere.  Towards the end of the VHS era, it was almost true that you could buy (some) movies for less than it cost to rent them.

The other big change was after the Supreme Court ruled against Universal Studios and Disney in 1984, finding that it was not a copyright violation to sell VCRs and rent videotapes of movies.  This saw an explosion in movie rental stores – chances are you remember Blockbuster, founded in 1985, and which in its heyday in the early 2000s had over 9,000 stores.

An entire new way of experiencing movies at home evolved from this – instead of buying the movie, you could simply rent it for a night or two or three, watch it, then return it.  Movie watching became even more affordable, and with rental stores sometimes having as many as 20,000 or more different titles to choose from, and with one on seemingly almost every block in most towns and cities, we in effect found ourselves with almost limitless libraries of movies to conveniently choose from.

This growth was assisted by the movie studios, when they changed from opposing movie rentals to supporting them.  Their support created a win-win-win for everyone.  They would sell new release movies to rental stores at reduced rates, in return for getting a share of rental income.  This enabled the rental stores to stock more copies of new releases to get more rentals during the initial surge of interest after a new title relase, and then allowed them to profitably sell off the excess copies of a title after the first rush of rentals ended.  It further boosted the public acceptance of VHS movies, both owned and also rented.

But, as wondrous as VHS tapes were, the truth is their quality was lousy.  Although, to be fair, the quality of movies in theatres was not always good, either.  The film copies were sometimes worn, scratched, or faded, the sound was often mono and played through low-quality inadequate sound-systems, and the theatre itself probably had uncomfortable seats and inadequate other facilities.

It is really only since the start of home movie watching that “average” movie theatres started to improve, feeling the need to create an in-theatre experience that people couldn’t experience at home – a really big picture, a good quality picture, great sound with many different channels, comfortable seating, and nicer public areas.

VHS tapes offered a maximum of 240 lines of resolution, and terrible color.  Tapes could hold up to 240 minutes of content, depending on the length of tape in the cassette and the recording/playing speed (there were three different speeds – faster speeds meant better quality video, but used more tape so added to the cost).  Usually, the “sweet spot” was in the 120 – 180 minutes per tape range, which happily was long enough for an entire movie on one tape.

Sound, originally poor and basic, quickly improved to surprisingly good quality, and could be in stereo as well as mono.

There were attempts at improving the picture quality of video tapes (most notably S-VHS), and indeed, at the time VHS first appeared, there was a slightly better competing format (Sony’s Betamax) but this was out-marketed (and under-priced too) by VHS and so died-out quickly, even though it offered a better quality picture (but at a higher price).

VHS tapes were inconvenient, although at the time, we tended to accept their limitations without thinking, and because many of us had reel to reel or cassette tape recorders, we were already familiar with the limitations of “sequential access” tape systems.  Fast forwarding, or skipping back a bit was difficult and slow, pausing was often awful (plus was quickly wearing out that piece of tape while the heads continued to spin around on a fixed piece of tape), and after watching a movie, you had to rewind the tape before you could watch it again.  Remember the slogan “Be kind, rewind” – rental companies urging you to rewind the tapes you rented before returning them.

The tapes also had a somewhat finite life.  There was always a chance they’d get mangled by your VHS player, and while you could watch a movie hundreds of times, sooner or later the physical tape itself would wear out.  The quality of a recording would also diminish over time, even if just left unplayed, on the shelf (due to “print through” of the magnetic field from one piece of tape to the pieces of tape above and below it in the reel, and due to gradually weakening magnetic fields in general).

VHS tapes also had the appeal of being able to be recorded onto as well as played from – both in the context of taking home movies with a camcorder and in the context of recording television programs to either keep, or simply to watch at a more convenient time.  The ability to record and replay video ensured VHS recorders remained a staple item in most households, even long after the VHS prerecorded movie concept was dead.

At the time, VHS tapes were amazing, but looking back, they were terrible.  (This will be a common theme….)

Home Video Part 2 :  The Well-Kept Secret – Laser Discs

A laser disc in its player, with a DVD on top for scale.

At about the same time as VHS tapes were becoming popular, a new format appeared, but never became popular – laser video discs.  I know this because for some years in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s my then wife and I ran one of the country’s largest mail-order companies for selling laser video-discs; our success was because very few retailers stocked laser video discs, and (at a time before the internet opened up new selling paths) mail-order businesses such as ours represented the only way enthusiasts could access specialty knowledge about laser discs and a good range of titles.

Laser discs can be thought of as “giant DVDs” (but predated the DVD).  They were usually 12″ in diameter, the same as an LP record, but thicker/heavier, and of course, were sparkly silver, like a DVD.  Unlike most DVDs, most laser discs were recorded on both sides (to be pedantic, a double sided disc was actually two single sided discs glued together).

Laser discs had many advantages, compared to VHS tapes.  The picture quality was much better – the type of difference in quality that anyone and everyone could immediately see.  They offered up to 425 lines of resolution, and combined great picture with excellent analog or digital sound.  They could also have multiple sound tracks, enabling the concept of both the main soundtrack, and an alternate soundtrack or two with commentaries or different languages, an entirely new feature not found on video tapes.

Although the picture was an analog picture, the sound was usually digital, and the same quality as a CD.  As well as stereo, laser discs started offering Dolby Surround sound format too, although this was constrained by the lack of movies that were originally filmed with surround sound (indeed, even simple stereo sound was rare until the 1960s, and not commonplace until the 1970s).

Unlike a video tape, discs didn’t need rewinding, and you could instantly jump to anywhere you wanted to watch, and, at least in theory, a disc would last almost forever (early laser discs often suffered from “laser rot” – an oxidization of the aluminium layer that stored the data, later manufacturing improved their quality control and discs become much longer lasting).  At the time, they were amazing and a huge leap forward from VHS tape.

They had some disadvantages.  They would hold no more than either 30 or 60 minutes of material per side, so if a movie extended over two hours, you’d need three sides (ie two discs) to play it all, assuming you had the 60 minute/side “CLV” type of recording (most were this type due to the greater capacity/convenience they offered).  In the early 1990s, manufacturers started selling players that could play both sides of a disc without requiring you to get up and flip the disc yourself, which made them much more convenient for coach-potatoes.

Astonishingly, although a huge leap forward in every respect, they were poorly supported by the studios and equipment manufacturers, and never became more than a niche product in the market.

Because they never became a “mass market” media, their prices (typically $25 – $40) – which were relatively low when VHS tapes remained high, did not change when VHS tape pricing dropped down to much less than laser disc pricing (ie $10 – $25 for a VHS movie copy).  Whereas the movie studios could see the elasticity of demand working with VHS and the huge mass-market for low priced VHS movies, they viewed (and probably correctly) the very small laser disc owning market as being “high end” and willing to pay a premium for laser discs, and so small that if they dropped their prices, there was no chance to make up in volume what they were giving away in profit per disc.

The cost of players was also higher than for VHS players; and another huge disadvantage was that a Laser Disc player could only play back pre-recorded discs, it couldn’t record them.  So people saw the continuing need to have a VCR to record/play back time-shifted material off their televisions, and were reluctant to buy a second device that could “only” play back, not record.

Although unpopular, laser discs were technologically very impressive, and at the time were amazing and superior to VHS in both sound and video quality.  But soon, they too were upstaged by a newer and better technology.

Home Video Part 3 :  The Digital Revolution – DVD

So, the world had a curious co-existence between low-quality and popular VHS, and high-quality but unpopular Laser Discs, for about 15 years.  This was as much due to the lack of interest/commitment on the part of the few companies that made laser disc players in particular, as was about to be shown.  If cheap laser disc players had been widely promoted, it is likely that the market would have grown, changing the dynamics of the overall at-home movie-watching marketplace.

The world massively changed in the late 1990s with the release of DVD.  It quickly became apparent that this new medium had all the advantages of laser discs, plus plenty more, and none of the disadvantages.  Most of all, it was a format that all hardware manufacturers and movie studios embraced and actively started selling, probably because its success had already been hinted at in the ten years previously when CDs first appeared, and then rapidly displaced both lp’s and cassette tapes.  The implied analogy was obvious – a DVD even looked like a CD, and of course, instead of lp, read “laser disc” and instead of cassette tape, read “VHS tape”.

So it was an easy sell to the public, already used to the benefits of CDs compared to other types of audio media.

The picture resolution on a DVD increased to 480 lines (perhaps now we should start talking pixels, because DVD was the first digital picture format) and also had greatly improved color encoding compared to laser discs.  As for VHS tapes, there was just no point in comparing the formats at all, because the DVDs were so astonishingly better as to silence any possible discussion or format debate.

The DVDs were also small, almost the same size as a CD (ie just under 5″ in diameter), and could hold up to two hours of content in a “single layer” format on a single side or four hours in a “dual layer” format.  DVDs could also be recorded on both sides, but seldom were.

These playing times could be extended even further with increased compression, albeit with some loss of picture quality.

The sound was also excellent, and DVDs started offering improved types of surround sound, and more tracks of content – more languages and more commentary options – than a laser disc.

DVD pricing was moderate – less than laser discs, but usually more than VHS tapes.  The difference in quality and user experience between DVD and VHS made it easy to justify a few extra dollars.

Although it was possible to get DVD recorders and DVD recordable discs, this was seldom – almost never – done by “normal” consumers.  Whereas the lack of recording was allowed to be a stumbling block that discouraged people from buying laser discs, it never proved a problem with DVDs instead, perhaps because people simply continued to use a low-cost VHS recorder for their “time shifting” of television shows, or started to use digital video recorders instead, and the new types of camcorders contained the ability to play back their video, removing a need for separate playback machines for home video.

Unlike laser discs, DVDs were well stocked by stores that sold (or used to sell) VHS tapes, as well as audio stores and mass-market outlets such as Walmart and other retail chains.

Plus the internet (and Amazon) was becoming more common, giving everyone, everywhere, access to sophisticated information about titles and availability.

The introduction of DVD triggered the market share decline of VHS, both to buy and also to rent.  Movie rental companies loved them – DVDs took up less shelf-space than VHS tapes, did not need to be rewound, and were generally more resistant to rough handling by renters, with any damage being usually immediately apparent simply by a ten second visual inspection of the disc when it was returned.

DVD rentals rapidly rose, and surpassed those on the VHS format in the United States for the first time in June 2003.

The quality of DVDs, for a while, exceeded the ability of most television sets to display.  They seemed wonderful, the ultimate format, at the time.  But….

Home Video Part 4 :  The Television Set Gets Upgraded Too – Digital Flat Screens

So now, for the first time, a typical at-home consumer-grade video player is better than the television on which it can be displayed.  What is the obvious next step?  Yes, and for a number of reasons, the manufacturers (and we as consumers) all now started to give focus (get it….  🙂 ) to the concept of better quality televisions.

Please now click on to the second part of this introductory article which covers the evolution of televisions and further improvements in movie formats and at-home video experiences.

2 thoughts on “At Home Video : An Amazing Revolution, part 1 (to DVDs)”

  1. David, well done! In 1955 I was in high school, working part time in a small RADIO & TV store, Transistors and circuit were new and coming into play. Tubes were on the way out. There was always conversation about the possibility of a TV that you could hang on the wall, like a picture. . . . it took a while, but as we know “Pixel Perfect” finally showed up! Boy, howdy, what’s next?
    Keep on, my friend!
    Best, Jamie McGrew

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      Hi, Jamie – thanks for your note. Yes, like you, I’ve retained my sense of wonder and amazement at each new development that quickly becomes accepted as the new normal. None of us could have imagined how our lives have unfolded.

      I’m the easiest guy to sell to in any sort of electronics store, because I’m always marveling at what is compared to what once was.

      I remember switching from tubes to transistors and then to ICs – except, of course, in NZ, we called them valves, not tubes. 🙂

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