A Brief History Of Failed Video Media Formats

HD DVD is only the latest video media format to land on the junk heap of history. Most of you reading probably know about Betamax, since it has entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for ‘failed format’. But Betamax and HD DVD are hardly alone, and Popular Mechanics has a fun article which covers ten failed video media formats. Read the article and see how many of the formats you were already familiar with. And how many of them did you own?

My answers below.

I thought I was pretty savvy, but I don’t think I’d ever heard of format’s 1-6. I did know about Betamax, LaserDisc, CED, and DIVX. And I still own a couple of LaserDisc players and several LaserDiscs. It was a decent format for its day, but flipping & swapping discs mid-movie was a huge down-side. Even with an auto-flip player, which I have, you’d still often have to swap discs mid-movie. And they’re big, of course. I was not reluctant to switch to DVD, that’s for sure.

As for the switch to DVD, I was always vehemently opposed to DIVX – as many of my then co-workers could attest to, given my lunchtime rants on the subject. Such a stupid idea. I can’t decide which DVD-related idea is worse – DIVX or the ‘disposable’ DVDs that were supposed to self-destruct after a couple of days via a dye layer that would turn opaque once exposed to the air. Surprise – they bombed in test marketing.

Makes me wonder how many failed audio media formats I’ve never heard of. Jokes about 8-track aside, there’s DAT, DCC (Digital Compact Cassette), and, arguably, MiniDisc. MD is iffy as it found a niche as a recordable format, and it was fairly successful in Japan with pre-recorded music. Hmm, I suppose SACD and DVD Audio have pretty much been failures too. Reel-to-reel, LP (vinyl of all stripes really), compact cassette, and CD have all been successful. Hmm, were wax cylinders a big success in their day? :-)

About MegaZone

MegaZone is the Editor of Gizmo Lovers and the chief contributor. He's been online since 1989 and active in several generations of 'social media' - mailing lists, USENet groups, web forums, and since 2003, blogging.    MegaZone has a presence on several social platforms: Google+ / Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / LiveJournal / Web.    You can also follow Gizmo Lovers on other sites: Blog / Google+ / Facebook / Twitter.
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  • http://bjdraw.com Ben Drawbaugh

    Interesting story, but I never understood how a format sold for 20 years and that was supported by every studio could be a failed format.

  • Chris H.

    Well the list is kind of a weird mix of three types of things, IMO:

    (1) True flops. In this category I would put Divx, CED, TED, and maybe Vcord, AVCO, EVR and CV-2000, though I confess I don’t know that much about those latter ones. (Wow, CED was awful. A stylus-based video disc! I used to rent one occasionally when I was in college. The movies were all pan-and-scan, if you bumped the player the movie skipped, and when we made the mistake of renting, er, mature entertainment, we found it heavily censored…)

    (2) Formats that found a niche and were successful in that sense. LaserDisc definitely belongs here; while it may never have quite made it in the mainstream, it was very popular amongst enthusiasts. And though it wasn’t on the list, I’d put MD here — it had its niche. Perhaps also U-Matic, which was in very widespread use in professional circles for a very long time.

    (3) Formats that actually did fairly well for a long time and are now simply gone. Betamax goes here. Yes, it lost the war with VHS, but it took a very long time for Beta to disappear. Sony didn’t even start making VHS players until 1988, and even so kept manufacturing Beta machines for far longer. It was not the quick victory of Blu-Ray v. HD-DVD, certainly. Yes, it ultimately died, and it never achieved the success of VHS, but IMO it’s not the same as LaserDisc (Beta was fairly widespread with the general public for quite a while), and certainly not the same as something like DIVX or CED.

  • http://www.gizmolovers.com/ MegaZone

    Ben – I take it you mean LaserDisc? Or perhaps Betamax? ;-)

    Chris – I think the reason Betamax is considered a failure is because it fell so far short of its stated goal – to be *the* home video format. It found a niche and sold enough players to cling to life for a long time (far more than HD DVD), but the niche it found was tiny, even negligible, compared to the sales of VHS decks. And since it was engaged in a very public war for dominance, that looks like a failure to most.

    LaserDisc is similar – it found a very successful niche as a high-end format. And it provided simply the best quality video for home use until the advent of DVD. (And it was better than a lot of early DVDs – he says from experience.) So I would be hesitant to call LD a real failure as well. But the early pitch for LD aimed it at the general market, and it bombed there. So that gets remembered and it is viewed as a failure. In the same way most people look at MD as a failure, since it was launched a pre-recorded format and it utterly bombed in the non-Japanese world. (I remember MD displays in my local Tower Records from around 1994-1995.) Sony pulled MD back, then re-launched it as a highly portable, high-quality way to make your own mixes. And it found a solid niche market that way, I know several people who own(ed) MiniDisc players. Some even imported nicer units from Japan. They’d make tons of ‘mixed-discs’ – just like people making mix-CDs, only MD was much smaller and a lot more portable. I came close to buying one myself. MD was only finally squeezed out when hard drive players, aka the iPod, really became affordable. LD was similar, after the initial failure it was re-launched as a videophile format and it found a home there, and it lasted several years into the reign of DVD.