How LaserDisc Ultimately Won the Format Wars

Anonymous asks: Why did people pick VHS over laserdisc?

laserdiscOn January 14, 2009, LaserDisc officially died. Of course, the shiny, 12-inch optical disc that once competed with VHS and Betamax in the home video market spun into oblivion long before. However, it was that Wednesday in January seven years ago that Pioneer – the last remaining company to make the devices – declared they were ceasing production after making a final run of 3,000 LaserDisc players, bringing the total made to just under 17 million units. “Under the market environment in which new media such as DVD and Blu-ray Discs now dominate, it has become difficult for Pioneer to procure the parts required to produce LD players,” read Pioneer’s press release. “Consequently Pioneer has been forced to terminate production of its LD products.”

For the three decades LaserDisc was on the market, it earned a reputation for providing a much higher picture quality, better audio, and laughably superior navigation than its competitors. From all this, the fact that VHS won the showdown is counterintuitive at first glance. But as with so many things, LaserDisc initially lost the home entertainment format wars not because of an inferior product, but primarily because of cost.

Somewhat bizarrely, LaserDisc can very loosely trace its origins to Bing Crosby. Post-WWII, the crooner was the regular host of certain radio shows. However, he didn’t like to do them live, partially because it sometimes required him to do the shows multiple times for different time zones. The alternative he had to pre-record for later broadcast was shellac disks, but they were brittle and the playback quality left something to be desired, resulting in studios generally putting the kibosh on using such recordings for their prime-time shows. But Army Corps engineer Jack Mullin offered him a solution – high quality magnetic tape recording.

While magnetic tape recording had been around before this, the quality of the recordings wasn’t great. This all changed in 1942 when Dr. Walter Weber and Hans Joachim von Braunmühl made a breakthrough within Nazi Germany. The result of their work was later heard by an American stationed in England during WWII, the aforementioned Lt. Jack Mullin.

During his time working on improving radar and other such technologies, Mullin sometimes worked through the night in his lab at the Royal Air Force facility in Farnborough, England.  Unfortunately for him, the BBC stopped broadcasting at midnight, leading him to search for something else to listen to.  What he found was a German broadcast of classical music that continued throughout the night.

The remarkable thing about this broadcast was that, unlike other recorded programs of the day which generally used some form of disc recording that had various pops and ticks throughout when played back, the audio quality of the German classical music broadcast was such that it sounded like a live broadcast. A curiosity, Mullin mused about whether Hitler was forcing full orchestras of musicians to play around the clock or whether the Germans had come up with a superior recording technology.

After the war, he set about finding out, ultimately discovering that the Germans were using nothing more than a magnetophone, which was a device invented in Germany in the mid-1930s. Unlike the 1930s version that the Allies had known about, however, this upgraded unit used superior tape and, critically, ac biasing, rather than dc. In a nutshell, the latter improvement essentially smoothed out the unused portions of the audio band on the tape much better than dc biasing, making for very clean sounding audio.

Not the first to try this (the first known patent for ac biasing went all the way back to 1921, invented by W. L. Carlson and Glenn L. Carpenter, though their invention was almost completely forgotten), combined with a magnetophone, ac biasing shined.

Realizing the potential commercial uses for the product, in 1948, Mullins went to Hollywood and demoed his own version of the device. This ultimately came to the attention of Bing Crosby’s agent who brought the equipment to the superstar. One listen and Crosby was sold. He invested in Mullin’s company and started using the device to record his radio shows. While this type of pre-recording is commonplace now, at the time doing this rather than broadcasting live in front of a studio audience was something of a mini-revolution within the industry.

Eventually, 3M (if you’re curious, see: What the Company Name 3M Stands For) purchased the technology and spun it off to a new sub-company called Mincom. While 3M’s Mincom appreciated audio recordings, what they were really looking for was to take the lead in another medium – video recording.

David Paul Gregg claims he first envisioned the idea for a video recording optical disc in 1958 while working as an engineer for Westrex, a rival of Mincom. Taking the principles of audio recording to a shellac disk, encoding FM signals through a series of pits and ridges, he added a concentrated light source – a laser- for reading the information off the disc.

Fired from Westrex in 1960 purportedly for being unwilling to fully share his ideas with the company, Gregg and his optical disc idea found a home at Mincom. In 1961, Gregg patented his “Electron beam recording and reproducing system,” but still ran into a dispute with his new employer reportedly for the same reason as his old- his unwillingness to give up control of his invention. Unfortunately for Gregg, other Mincom engineers began to take components of what he was working on, creating their own prototype. By 1969, Mincom owned 19 patents for such a device (only 3 named Gregg as co-author) and was essentially out-innovating the inventor. Gregg subsequently left the company to start his own, later selling his laser-disc patents to MCA.

Flash forward six years. With television firmly entrenched, the next step for the entertainment business was bringing Hollywood movies from a dark theater to American homes. (Previous to this, something only the world’s elite could enjoy, see: That Time Howard Hughes Purchased a TV Station So He Could Have Netflix in the 1960s.) Towards this end, in 1975, Sony debuted Betamax. A year later, JVC launched VHS. Betamax had better picture quality, but VHS was lighter, cheaper (though not inherently so, mostly just because only Sony made Betamax devices, unlike VHS where many companies were licensed to make them) and could hold significantly more information than Betamax (at least in early models). While Betamax and VHS battled in what became known as the “videotape format wars,” with VHS winning largely owing to major missteps by Sony, rather than VHS being the superior format, Magnavox was working on their own in-home entertainment based on the previous work done by Gregg at Mincom- “DiscoVision.” (Yes, they really called it that.)

DiscoVision essentially just encoded analog data onto a disc, which was read off via a laser. (For a genuinely interesting and easy to understand explanation of how this system worked under the hood, see this 1980 Mr. Wizard video.) Notably, this new technology had drastically better picture and audio quality than both VHS and Betamax. It was also capable of storing multiple audio tracks, unlike the tape formats, allowing for things like director’s commentary and the like to be added. The discs for it were also much easier and, in theory, cheaper to manufacture.

DiscoVision was first released in December 1978 in only one market- Atlanta, Georgia. The player cost $700 (about $2300 today). The first movie to be released on “DiscoVision” was Jaws. Initially a success with the player selling out across Atlanta, “DiscoVision” moved on to other markets.

In association with MCA, in 1980 Pioneer launched their own version of the player, but dropped the original name for the technology. Initially re-branded “LaserVision,” it ultimately became known as “LaserDisc”. Investing in making a player that was cheaper to manufacture than Magnavox’s, Pioneer managed to get the price for theirs down to about $500 (about $1500 today). Getting celebrities like Ray Charles and Mr. Wizard to pitch their product, LaserDisc was on the upswing.

So if LaserDisc was such a superior format, why did VHS become so popular? In many respects, for some of the same reasons Betamax ultimately lost to VHS.

To begin with, as previously mentioned, cost.  The LaserDisc player was technologically complex and quite bulky, resulting in it being comparatively expensive to make and ship, even if they had sold as many units per year as VHS players.

Demonstrating how things might have been different had the player been cheaper to manufacture, in Japan where the LaserDisc players were heavily discounted for a time to more or less match the price of VHS players, during that period LaserDisc outsold VHS, peaking at 1 in 10 households in Japan owning a LaserDisc player.

Another big issue was storage.  A standard VHS tape could hold most movies without issue. The LaserDisc, however, could not. Unlike DVDs and Blu-rays, the LaserDisc stored the video and audio in analog form (though later the audio could be stored digitally as well).  The lack of compression in the stored video combined with the relatively large frame rate resulted in initial discs only being able to store 30 minutes of video (later 60 minutes) per side of the disc. This meant the movie had to be interrupted frequently to turn the disc over or swap it out for another. After such a flip or swap, it also took about 20-30 seconds for the half pound (1/4 kg) disc to spin back up to full speed before it would start playing again.

Later models could automatically switch the laser to the other side of the disc. Pioneer also eventually sold multi-disc systems, in some designs, such as the “LaserStack” system, swapping out discs not unlike a record playing jukebox. But this all just added more cost to the already expensive system and was completely unnecessary in a relatively cheap VHS, where one tape could hold most movies with no interruption on playback.

This brings us back to cost and the discs themselves.  While technically the LaserDiscs could have been drastically cheaper to make vs. videocassettes (being just two single-sided aluminum discs layered in plastic), as the format war continued to rage and VHS became increasingly popular, the sheer volume of tapes being sold saw the price to manufacture a VHS tape drop to about $1 (about $2 today) at the end of the 1980s, while one LaserDisc cost about $5 to make at this time.  Because of this, by the end of the 1980s, consumers were paying about $35-$40 (about $70-$80 today) for new release LaserDiscs, whereas new releases on VHS were selling for about $15-$20 ($30-$40 today).

Another factor the VHS had going for it over the LaserDisc was how much easier it was to damage the discs than videocassettes. Now, in theory a LaserDisc is actually significantly less prone to failing over time than a videocassette (even potentially outlasting a human’s lifespan, regardless of how many times it was viewed). In contrast, early VHS tapes were prone to relatively rapid degradation in playback quality owing to the fact that the head had to be in direct contact with the delicate tape.

All that said, in actual practice the video cassettes tended to be significantly more durable than LaserDiscs- accidentally drop a video cassette and it would probably be fine. Do the same to a LaserDisc and it might result in a scratch. Unlike digital DVDs and Blu-rays, the analog LaserDisc initially had no real graceful way to deal with such defects. Further, largely due to poor manufacturing quality of early discs, LaserDiscs were also susceptible to failing due to “disc rot”.

All that said, in places where a particular VHS tape might be watched countless times, like at schools, with relatively careful handling the LaserDisc was a far superior format, which is why it was so popular at schools. But for the much larger home-use market, where the tapes were infrequently watched, tape degradation really wasn’t much of an issue, especially with later VHS players that could read the tape without the head needing to physically contact it.

Yet another significant advantage of VHS was the ability to record shows. While it was technically possible to put such a recording feature into a LaserDisc player, no manufacturer ever chose to offer such a thing, and the discs themselves would have been quite expensive to buy anyway compared to the price videocassettes ultimately dropped to thanks to their huge market share.

In the end, as VHS continued its rise in market share, LaserDisc rapidly fell off, becoming more of a niche item for “videophiles” who wanted the best possible picture and audio quality technology could provide, never mind the cost.

But we said in the title that LaserDisc ultimately won the video format wars. How? Via its children- DVDs and Blu-rays (that’s not to mention CD’s over audio cassettes), which were all heavily based on the technology pioneered by LaserDisc, albeit in a digital, rather than analog, form.

Laserdisc vs dvd

LaserDisc vs DVD

When DVDs entered the picture in the mid-1990s, they spelled the final nail in the coffin of the essentially already dead LaserDisc. For starters, the DVD’s video and sound quality rivaled the LaserDisc (though some videophiles would argue otherwise, preferring the analog format, which is why the LaserDisc players continued to be made all the way up to 2009 despite new release movies having long abandoned the LaserDisc). Further, thanks to the compressed, digital format, among other improvements, a full movie could easily be stored on a single side of a much smaller disc. It wasn’t just the discs that got smaller either; technological advances combined with the diminished discs allowed for more compact, relatively cheap players as well.

In the end, VHS won the battle, killing the LaserDisc off, but its offspring soon avenged its parent by killing VHS and, in so doing, winning the war against the videocassette format.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Just as surprising as the fact that you could still buy a new LaserDisc player in 2009, Sony didn’t stop selling Betamax players until 2002. Moreover, you could still buy brand new Betamax tapes up until March of 2016.
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  • rudymack

    If you went to the video store to rent a movie you might find a few LaserDisks sitting in the corner and you might find a wall full of Beta-max but the whole rest of the store was full of VHS tapes. That’s the real reason VHS won. You also completely forgot about capacitance based disks (CED?) which were introduced at the same time as LaserDisks.

  • Snidely Whiplash

    I suspect Betamax took so long to finally die out, especially in the ability to purchase blank tape because it was long the format for local TV stations to record and play back their local programming such as news and locally produced shows.

  • Way back when my oldest child ( who just turned 21 @ the time of this writing ) was but a tot – I’d rent Laserdisc from a local video store that was next door to where I worked in Orlando @ the time -@$3.49 a night- to transfer them to VHS- cause Disney wanted $29.99 a cassette – & I thought those already rich as hell SOB’s exec’s @ Disney were out of their delusional minds for wanting that type of $dough for their 50-year old movies on such a shitty format as VHS – and I wasn’t going to the one to put another dime in their back pocket. I told my now ex-wife back then it be a cold day in hell B4 I’d paid that type of cash for a Disney flick just because she wanted to build “his” collection ( maybe she really wanted a girl even then – or maybe she just wanted the tapes for herself, who knows? and obviously lots of people spent their hard earned cash on this low end format – cause “they” made $ Billions ) and I remember telling her that if he wanted to build a Disney library of his own then he was old enough to earn his own money – he could go out and buy his own Disney collection, which by the time that happens – the movies such cost much less. As luck would have it – all those tapes can now be found @ thrift stores around the country for as less than a dollar a piece. Not bad – right? I for one – still have all my favorite release that I love on that Big-old shinny 12″ Laserdisc – and just let me state – for the record – that my S-VHS Transfers that I produced @ that time – looked better than the store bought tape. Word.