Sony U-Matic - A little relative.

Behold, readers, the machine that, perhaps more than any other enjoyed the highest heights of consumer wantingess, before suffering the lowest humiliation of total obsolescence. The VCR. You may need to install your largest eyes just to see the entire "little machine" all at once. The U-Matic was the size of four standard-sized babies (two, if they're from Mississippi).

In 1972, Sony's U-Matic was still a relative newcomer to the commercial VCR market. Few people who weren't a TV studio could justify the expense, so consumer adoption was slow. So, Sony courted the institutional / industrial market, by suggesting that their "little" machine could help cure cancer and basically save the world (see complete ad copy below). This is the same company that demanded $700 for the Playstation 3 and generally lost out on the current round of console wars when the price of their game machine dropped just slightly slower than the public's desire to own it. Sony BMG was the record company behind the Rootkit debacle a few years ago. Remember that? When overactive copy protection software on pre-recorded audio CDs infected the computers of millions of people? That's our Sony. Always humble. Never a misstep.

Sony's argument for the cancer curing potential of the U-Matic is that a doctor with a new treatment can doesn't need to wait to prepare a paper and present it at some stupid medical convention. That's the peer review process, and it's dumb! No, the doctor (assuming he's a super genius and that he's made not a single mistake in his theory and the scientific process is an annoying burden to him anyway), can just make a video tape demonstration and mail it directly to other doctors with possibly less experience than him who may be unable to spot flaws in his new treatment. In a perfect world, instant communication would allow absolutely anybody to spew their ideas and opinions throughout the world, possibly via some kind of web that is world wide. Only then would the very best ideas and knowledge be heard.

Aaaanyway, eventually the VCR became cheaper and as it found it's way into American homes, the film industry threw a fit. The new technology was horrifying to the entertainment industry, and they hoped to sue the VCR out of existence. This is because at the time, there was no room in the MPAA's philosophy for the idea of recording programs or movies. They couldn't imagine a world in which giving control to the consumer could possibly be good for business. Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA in 1982, testified that the VCR would destroy Hollywood and kill creativity, the seas would boil and the moon shall be as blood.

As it turned out, rentals and sales of videotapes became a gold mine for the entertainment industry. So, Valenti was either a liar or stupid. Previous to the VCR issue, the RIAA freaked out when people were recording albums onto cassette tapes at home. They said it would destroy the industry. It didn't. The RIAA came back in The Eighties to rage about home recording on digital media. The government told them to shut up. Now, the MPAA is throwing another tantrum about online file sharing. It will be interesting to see how history views the present disagreement. Odds are that the entertainment industry won't be destroyed by online piracy, and a new market will be born with someone other than the studios cashing the checks... again.

In my opinion, if a movie is good enough, people will want to see it in a theater, and own a real commercial copy on disc. If a movie or album is not great but just interesting, I'll record it from TV onto a DVD and call it a day. Most people have enough disposable income to buy or rent a movie they think is worth it, as long as it's good enough. Hollywood should concentrate on not making so much shitty content and make it worth our time and money to do things their way. A compressed MP3 file isn't worth money, to me. I buy the disc and then rip and re-rip it in whatever format I want, or at higher and higher bitrates as file storage becomes ever cheaper. This is my gold standard of music collecting. My CDs are my Fort Knox of music. I find it odd that the RIAA is losing their hair over people trading music online, while still bemoaning declining CD sales, which is a format that basically has no copy protection at all.

By the way, the very best way to rip bit-perfect duplicates of your CDs is by using Exact Audio Copy, available here. Rip to WAVs and then burn with the software of your choice. Enjoy. That way, you can have one copy for your three year old to scratch all to hell, and the "master" can be safe and sound in your musical panic room.

When the anti-VCR thing was happening, the movie studios could have immediately responded by embracing rentals or aftermarket videocassette sales, but it's always easier to just try and sue all your problems away. It would be refreshing, just once, to see the a group like the RIAA or MPAA find a way to work with the new technology as soon as it develops. There's always money to be made if someone with a little vision thinks of it.

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Steve Miller said...

No, the bigger humiliation in home video was not the failure of the pre-recorded tape (and Sony's superior Beta to JVC's VHS), it was RCA's Selectavision video disc system. Sales of the discs outpaced even RCA's wildest imagination. Sales of the machines did not. But don't blame this on the advertising work we did...

Trouble was that RCA dragged its feet in getting the product to the street and Selectavision came out two or three years after VHS had pretty much drubbed Beta. So projections of three $40 discs per machine per year, swollen to actual sales of 30-40 discs per machine* didn't save the product... there weren't that many machines out there!

You know what made video tapes successful as a consumer product? Porn. There's a theory that porn drives any technological revolution. It's those horny early adopters... once the new tech worms its way in to the mindset of the general population, the neighborhood's been pretty well gentrified.

*VIsits to antique malls will independently confirm this. I have never seen a Selectavision player offered for sale without a box of 30+ discs sitting beside it.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Hah! Of course I forgot to mention the pron. Every new entertainment technology lives or dies on it's adoption by the porn industry. Thanks for reminding me, and for the insight!


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