Flashback 1981: RCA Unveils the CED Videodisc Player

Thirty-six years ago this month, RCA introduced its long-awaited videodisc player, nine years after it demonstrated that it was possible to store color video on, and play it back from, an LP-like 12-inch disc.

But the SFT100 SelectaVision VideoDisc player, released at the height of the Beta vs. VHS videotape wars, was too little, too late—even though it offered better picture quality. In fact, the format was obsolete the day it hit stores, despite RCA having spent $200 million over 15 years developing it.

Unlike the LaserDisc players introduced by Philips/Magnavox and Pioneer a few years earlier—which were used laser-read optical discs that would later be adapted for the CD format—RCA’s CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) system used a turntable-like diamond stylus to extract audio and video signals from grooves in the disc.

New York magazine’s Michael Schrage wrote: “A number of people expect the result to be like the Manhattan Project—a bomb. The reason is the technology. SelectaVision is a “grooved capacitance” technology, and that pretty much relegates it to the Jurassic era in terms of state of the art.”

The SFT100 player was priced at $499.95 and CED videodiscs cost between $14.98 and $39.98, with most selling for less than $20. The discs were housed in a protective “caddy” and stored up to 60 minutes of video, which meant two discs were required for a feature-length movie (hence, the $40 price point).

Within months, it was clear that the RCA system was doomed, having sold only 100,000 players by the end of 1981. CED players were also made by Hitachi, Sanyo, and Toshiba and marketed under 11 brand names, including JC Penney, Realistic, Sears, and Zenith.

The CED videodisc system limped along until 1984, when RCA finally pulled the plug on the format. Cumulative sales for the first three years were around 550,000. When all was said and done, RCA lost upwards of $600 million on the project.

For more on the RCA SelectaVision VideoDisc system, visit stason.org, a FAQ compiled by Tom Howe.

pw's picture

My friend has Airport 77 in every format..
She is looking for a 4K version now ha ha..

utopianemo's picture

Thank you for posting this. I have one, vivid memory of video disc. When I was young, about 1984, I was babysat by some neighbors for some reason. They thought it would be a good idea to let a sheltered, 7-year-old boy watch some movies on their fancy videodisc player, so they started me off with Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

I had daymares for weeks. I had previously never seen anything more intense than Swiss Family Robinson, so watching Spacehunter was terrifying. As a chaser, they decided I should watch Jaws 3. I was so traumatized by the strangeness of the previous film, I handled Jaws without breaking a sweat.

Oreo's picture

My family had one of these when I was a kid. Not everything needed two discs, but they did make double sided versions that needed to be flipped, just like vinyl albums. We had Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, a few James Bond films, M*A*S*H, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, along with some Peanuts and other kids fare.

I don't remember it being bad, except with the discs started to skip or the stylus needed to be changed.

John_Werner's picture

I chose the LV format over the RCA one, but I was ultimately disappointed. I bought a Magnavox branded player with CX (CBS Labs) noise reduction. The dealer allowed owners to rent discs and I soon became aware that these discs would slightly warp, possibly due to previous renters hot cars? I would often hear a scrapping sound from within the top-loader Magnavox player which sometimes resulted in a disc becoming unreadable. When everything worked as it should it was the best sight and sound combination I had experienced on my Proton 25" monitor at that time. I dubbed many discs to Beta Hi-Fi and the later SVHS tapes. I thought I had something special warts and all you might say until the clunkiness of the whole affair became tiresome. DVDs were a welcome relief.