OCTOBER 2016 - VHS TECHNICAL DETAILS : VIDEOTAPE FORMAT WAR
The first home VCR to become widely available was the Philips Video Cassette Recording system, released in 1972. However, the first system to be successful with consumers was Sony's Betamax in 1975. This was quickly followed by the competing VHS (Video Home System) format from JVC, and later by Video 2000 from Philips. Subsequently, the Betamax-VHS format war began in earnest. Other competitors, such as Sanyo's V-Cord and Quasar's "Great Time Machine" quickly disappeared.
Sony had demonstrated a prototype videotape recording system they called "Beta" to the other electronics manufacturers in 1974, and expected that they would back a single format for the good of all. But JVC in particular decided to go with its own format (despite Sony's appeal to the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry) thus beginning the format war.
Manufacturers also introduced other systems such as needle-based, record-style discs (RCA's Capacitance Electronic Disc, JVC's Video High Density disc) and Philips' LaserDisc. None of these disc formats gained much ground as none were capable of home recording; however, they did hold small niche markets. CED's inexpensive record-like format (using a fine keel-shaped stylus to read an electronic signal rather than mechanical vibrations) made it attractive to low-income families during the 1980s, and LaserDisc's 5 megahertz/420 line resolution made it popular with discerning videophiles until circa 1997 (when DVD-Video became the new standard for high-quality)
According to James Lardner's 1987 book Fast Forward: Hollywood, the Japanese, and the VCR Wars, Sony had met with Matsushita executives sometime in late 1974/early 1975 to discuss the forthcoming home video market. Both had previously cooperated in the development and marketing of the "U" format video cassette, with Sony marketing under the U-Matic brand. Sony brought along a Betamax prototype for Matsushita's engineers to evaluate. Sony at the time was unaware of JVC's work. At a later meeting, Matsushita, with JVC management in attendance, showed Sony a VHS prototype, and advised them it was not too late to embrace VHS "for the good of the industry" but Sony management felt they were too close to production to compromise.
While VHS machines' lower retail price was a major factor, the principal battleground proved to be recording time. The original Sony Betamax video recorder for the NTSC television system could only record for 60 minutes, identical to the previous U-matic format, which had been sufficient for use in television studios. JVC's VHS could manage 120 minutes, followed by RCA's entrance into the market with a 240 minute recorder. These challenges sparked a mini-war to see who could achieve the longest recording time.
RCA had initially planned a home video format around 1974, to be called "SelectaVision MagTape," but canceled it after hearing rumors about Sony's Betamax format, and was considering Sony as an OEM for an RCA-branded VCR. RCA had discussions with Sony, but RCA felt the recording time was too short, insisting that they needed at least a 4-hour recording time (reportedly because that was the length of an average televised U.S. football game). Sony engineers knew that the technology available to manufacture video heads wasn't up to the task yet, but halving the tape speed and track width was a possibility. Unfortunately, the picture quality would be degraded severely, and at that time Sony engineers felt the compromise was not worthwhile.
Soon after, RCA met with execs with the Victor Corporation of Japan (JVC), who had created their own video format christened "VHS" (which stood for "Video Home System"). But JVC also refused to compromise the picture quality of their format by allowing a 4-hour mode. Ironically, their parent corporation, Matsushita, later met with RCA, and agreed to manufacture a 4-hour-capable VHS machine for RCA, much to JVC's chagrin.
RCA would go on to market "4 hours, $999", forcing a price war and also a "tape length" war. Betamax eventually achieved 5 hours at Beta-III speed on an ultra-thin L-830 cassette, and VHS eventually squeezed 10.6 hours with SLP/EP speed on a T-210 cassette. Slower tape speeds meant a degradation in picture quality, but the consumer didn't seem to mind. From the consumer perspective, buying a single 10-hour VHS tape was cheaper than buying two 5-hour Betamax tapes.
When Betamax was introduced in Japan and the United States in 1975 its Beta-I speed ( 1.5"/second ) offered a slightly higher horizontal resolution (250 lines vs 240 lines horizontal NTSC), lower video noise, and less luma/chroma crosstalk than VHS and was later marketed as providing pictures superior to VHS' playback. However the introduction of B-II speed, 0.8"/sec (2-hour mode), to compete with VHS's 2-hour Standard Play mode ( 1.3"/sec ) reduced Betamax's horizontal resolution to 240 lines. The extension of VHS to VHS HQ increased the apparent resolution to 250 lines so that overall a Betamax/VHS user could expect virtually identical luma resolution and chroma resolution (~30 lines) wherein the actual picture performance depended on other factors including the condition and quality of the videotape and the specific video recorder machine model. For most consumers the difference as seen on the average television was negligible.
Another improvement would be SuperBeta (sometimes called High Band Beta) in 1985. SuperBeta allowed for a gain of 20% to 290 lines in horizontal resolution and some mechanical changes to reduce video noise but Betamax's American and European share had already dropped to less than 10% of the market.
For PAL versions time was less of an issue. Betamax's longest tape (L-830) could record for 3 hours and 35 minutes, compared to VHS's 4 hours. For the European markets the issue was one of cost, since VHS had already gained dominance in the United States (70% of the market), and the large economy of scale allowed VHS units to be sold at a far lower cost than the rarer Betamax units. (See market share below.)
In the mid-to-late 80s, both formats were extended to Super Betamax and Super VHS. Super Betamax offered a slight improvement from 250 to 290 lines horizontally, which could make near-identical copies of broadcast or cable television. Super VHS offered up to 420 lines horizontal (in modern digital terms, 560 pixels edge-to-edge) that surpassed broadcast-quality and matched the quality of laserdiscs. However, the "super" standards remained expensive niche products for a small minority of videophiles and camcorder hobbyists.