As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at the RCA SelectaVision.
The early era of home video is largely remembered for the format war waged between JVC’s VHS techology and Sony’s Betamax system, both of which allowed consumers to both view and record programming. Despite this, there were other contenders in the early home video mix. Philips introduced a third tape technology in 1979, Video 2000 (or V2000), but it was only released in Europe, South Africa and Argentina for PAL and SECAM standards. Late to the game, it died out by the end of the ’80s.
More successful was the LaserDisc, introduced in 1978, a read-only format developed jointly by Philips, MCA and Pioneer that employed 12″ optical discs to store analog video digitally. Despite the video signal being analog, it still had a much sharper picture than VHS (425 TVL lines of horizontal resolution vs. 240 in NTSC standard), and could handle multiple audio tracks, which allowed for such extras as foreign language and dub tracks, as well as commentary tracks. It was a favorite amongst movie and hi-fi enthusiasts until the arrival of DVD technology.
It was into this home video landscape that the RCA Selectavision wandered in March 1981, and consumers responded with a resounding “Why?”
You couldn’t record programs with SelectaVision like you could VHS and Beta. SelectaVision’s picture wasn’t as good as LaserDisc. Like LaserDiscs, the SelectaVision’s discs – technically, Capacitance Electronic Discs, or CEDs – held only 60 minutes of information per side, meaning they had to be flipped mid-movie. Unlike, LaserDiscs, CEDs came in these clumsy, plastic cartridges that you had to use to insert and extract the discs from the machine. And CEDs were analog and grooved, read by a stylus, susceptible to dust, stylus wear, skipping and scratching.
So why? Why introduce an inferior product into an already crowded marketplace?
The idea of a phonographic-type analog video disc system had been one RCA had knocked around dating back to 1964. Had such a system come out in the late ’60s or early ’70s, it would’ve been revolutionary, but by 1972, they had only gotten as far internally as being able to fit 10 minutes worth of color video on an exceeding fragile disc.
Eventually, they settled on a PVC/carbon blend to create a conductive disc. The hope had been to package the discs in jackets like LPs, but they were far too susceptible to picking up dust and dirt, which tended to glue itself to the surface and lock the grooves. Thus, the cartridge system was born to minimize exposure to the elements.
So RCA spent all this money and all this time developing this system, and they were already behind in the game, so they tried to corner the market on price. SelectaVision launched with a retail price of $499, which sounds outrageous (especially when you adjust it for inflation: $1,430 in 2020 money) until you consider that LaserDisc players sold for about 50 percent more, and VCRs (VHS and Beta) twice as much.
What’s more, SelectaVision afforded consumers the opportunity to own their favorite movies. VHS and Beta tapes were largely priced for the rental market, with video shops expected to make their money back after multiple rentals. SelectaVision titles could initially be ordered directly from RCA, with many discs costing less than $20.
In the end, though, there weren’t enough families sold on the idea of a “cheaper expensive” option – at the average hourly wage of $7.42 in the U.S. in 1981, it would still take more than a week and a half of work to save up enough for a SelectaVision. As the VHS asserted dominance over Beta, its cost began to come down, to where you could buy a VHS on sale for under $300 by 1985.
But by then, it was already all over but the crying for RCA and the SelectaVision. RCA discontinued production of new units in April 1984, having sold only about 550,000 in its first three years. They did continue to support the product for a little longer, producing new titles into 1986. By the time they were done, RCA had lost close to $600 million, and Nipper was being sold to GE. That wasn’t just the fault of SelectaVision’s failure, but more than any other project, the SelectaVision project was a distillation of the reasons for RCA’s demise.