When Movies Came On Vinyl: The Early ’80s Engineering Marvel And Marketing Disaster That Was RCA’s SelectaVision
Anyone over 30 remembers a time when it was impossible to imagine home video without physical media. But anyone over 50 remembers a time when it was difficult to choose what type of media to bet on. While the “computer zoo” of the early 1980s forced home computing enthusiasts to choose between Apple, IBM, Commodore, Texas Instruments, and a host of other brands, each with their own unique technology specifications, the hardware market home video came in several different variants. You’ve heard of Sony’s Betamax, for example, which has been a punchline since losing to JVC’s VHS. But that was just the realm of videotape; Have you ever watched a movie on a vinyl record?
Four decades ago, it was hard for most consumers to imagine home video. “Get records that allow you to have John Travolta dancing on your floor, Gene Hackman driving through your living room, the godfather staying at home,” the narrator of TV commercial above.
How, you ask? By purchasing a SelectaVision player and compatible video discs, which allow you to “watch the entertainment you really want, when you want it, without interruption”. In our age of on-demand streaming, that sounds like a ridiculously trivial claim, but at the time, it represented the culmination of seventeen years and $600 million of intensive research and development at the Radio Company of America, better known as RCA.
Radio, and even more television which succeeded it, made RCA a huge (and hugely profitable) conglomerate in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1960s, he had the resources to work seriously on projects such as a vinyl record that could contain not only music, but full-color, stereo moving images. This proved even more difficult than it looked: after many delays, RCA was only able to market SelectaVision in the spring of 1981, four years after the in-house lens. By then, after the company had commissioned content for the better part of a decade (DA Pennebaker shot David Bowie’s last Ziggy Stardust concert in 1973 commissioned by RCA, who intended to make it a SelectaVision disc), the format faced competition not only from VHS and Betamax, but also from the cutting-edge LaserDisc.
Nevertheless, SelectaVision’s ultra-densely encoded vinyl video discs – officially known as capacitive electronic discs, or CEDs – were, in their own way, marvels of engineering. You can dive deep into exactly what makes the system so impressive, which involves not just a breakdown of its components, but a full account of RCA’s history, although the five-part Technology Connections miniseries at the top of the post. Real finalists can also watch RCA video tour of its SelectaVision production facilitiesas well as his dealer intro live stream hosted by Tom Brokaw and featuring a Broadway-style musical number. SelectaVision was also deployed in the UK in 1983, thus qualifying for a hands-on review by British retro-tech youtuber Techmoan.
SelectaVision only lasted three years. His failure may have been over-determined, and not just by the bad timing resulting from his troubled development. In the early 1980s, the idea of buying pre-recorded video media lacked the immediate appeal of “time-shifted” television, which had only become possible with videotape. RCA, whose marketing was centered on the possibility of building up a permanent video library like a music library, had not provided for the possibility of rental either. And while DACs were eventually made functional, they remained bulky, capable of holding only an hour of video per side, and notoriously prone to jitters even on first playback. Yet, as RCA’s ad campaigns pointed out, there really was a “magic” in being able to watch the movies you wanted at home, when you wanted. In that sense, at least, we now live in a magical world indeed.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and distributests about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall Or on Facebook.