June 4, 1977: VHS Comes to America
By: Priya Ganapati
1977: The VHS videocassette format is introduced in North America at a press conference before the Consumer Electronics Show starts in Chicago.
Long before the battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD, there was another home-video standards war that pitted Sony against another Japanese company, JVC. It was VHS vs. Betamax.
VHS, or Video Home System, was based on an open standard developed by JVC in 1976. The format allowed longer playtime and faster rewinding and fast-forwarding. JVC showed a two-hour tape that was so compact, Popular Science called it “smaller, in fact, than some audio cassette decks.”
The system was called Vidstar. The VCR would cost $1,280. That’s about $4,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Blank tapes were priced at $20 ($72 these days).
VHS was late to the game. Sony had launched the Betamax video recording system in 1975. The idea of a home-use VCR captured consumers’ imagination and was set to become one of the hottest home electronics products.
VHS and Betamax, though, had some stark differences. JVC’s product could record for two hours — enough to record a full-length movie — while Betamax had a recording capability of only an hour.
The VHS cassette used a 0.5-inch magnetic tape wound between two spools. The tape would slowly pass over the playback and recording heads of the VCR.
JVC licensed the VHS format to other electronics makers such as Sharp, so in its first year, many brands of VHS machines flooded the market. VHS-based players were cheaper than their Betamax counterparts.
In just its first year, the VHS format took 40 percent of the business away from Sony. By 1987, about 90 percent of the $5.25 billion market of VCRs sold in the United States were based on the VHS format.
The VHS and Betamax formats were not compatible, leading to a bitter decade-long fight for market share. JVC’s print advertising campaign focused on the four separate tape heads that would keep the picture “crisp and free of snow during the stop-action and slow-motion.”
JVC introduced VHS HQ (for High Quality) in 1985. It promised greater noise reduction and improved sharpness in picture quality. Two years later, Super VHS made its debut. By then Betamax had started to fade.
Ultimately, VHS won the battle, and tech lore has it that the porn industry played a big role in that victory. Sony reportedly wouldn’t let pornographic content be put on Betamax tapes, while JVC and the VHS consortium had no such qualms.
The VHS VCR’s decline started as tape-based systems were replaced by hard-drive–based digital video recorders such as TiVo. The DVD format changed the game for prerecorded movies in March 1997 and ended up entirely replacing VHS.
Hollywood studios stopped offering movies on VHS. The VCR, though, refused to die quickly. As of 2005, some 94.5 million Americans still owned VHS-format VCRs.
The last standalone JVC VHS VCR was produced Oct. 28, 2008. The company still makes combo DVD-VCR units.