Sony to Stop Making Betamax Tapes (Seriously)

Yes, we know…you (and everyone else) thought Sony stopped making Betamax tapes decades ago but it turns out they’re still in production—that is until Sony puts the final nail in the Betamax coffin in March 2016.

The announcement was made in a press release issued in Japan earlier this month. Here’s an excerpt about the legendary format from our 2012 story, “Flops: Fourteen Formats and Technologies that Couldn’t Quite Hang On”:

Sony’s Betamax videocassette format is famous not only for losing the mother of all format wars to JVC’s VHS system, but for introducing America to the concept of time-shifting TV programs. It also became the symbol of recording rights through Sony’s seven-year court battle with Hollywood that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1984 decision affirming the right to record TV programs for personal use. Ironically, by the time the historic ruling was handed down, one in five American TV households already owned a videocassette recorder (VCR) and VHS was outselling Beta by a wide margin. Sony conceded defeat and started selling VHS in 1988, although Beta remained a niche format outside of the U.S. for years to come.

The downfall of Beta is a story of stubborn pride and bad decisions. Sony introduced the first consumer VCR in late 1975, nearly two years before VHS entered the market, but squandered its lead by failing to line up a critical mass of support for the format. When JVC launched the conceptually similar but slightly bulkier VHS format in 1977, it already had the support of other top brands, including TV market leader RCA. Aggressive licensing, coupled with a recording time of two hours versus Beta’s one hour, gave VHS instant market momentum. Convinced that even longer recording times were necessary for sporting events, RCA equipped its first VCR with a four-hour long-play mode, sparking a tape length/recording time war that eventually topped out at five hours for Beta and 10.6 hours (with awful picture quality) for VHS.

mchase66's picture

Your explanation is actually incorrect on why Beta failed. Firstly this was not a story about Sony vs JVC et al, it was about Sony vs Universal Studios. Universal was so irate and fearful when Sony won the court battle, they foot the R&D bill for Victor to develop a new format under the condition they shared it with everyone with very low licencing fees.

At the time, Universal made more than 50% of the movies and would not allow any of their movies to be on Beta. Betamax died because of lack of content being squeezed out by Universal. It was because of that, Sony went into the movie business so in future they could control content as well as they do today.

If you think the Blu-ray vs HD DVD was similar, well no, it was the same! Sony vs Universal again, this time Sony owned their own content and had enough clout to fight and win this.

Beta dying had nothing to do with stubbiness, or pride, or recording times or anything like that. It was Sony's intent to mostly use Betamax as a TV recorder, Universal turned it into the home movie concept to protect their interests and reluctantly licensed movies for home watching, that was their "if you can't beat em, join em" solution to the situation and put Betamax out of business for spite.

efgaug's picture

I still have a Betamax machine in a box that I used for many years. It certainly had better quality than the VHS format at the time. I do recall that Matsushita and Sony attempted to collaborate on a format but could not come to an agreement. I better make sure I still have a few blank tapes just in case I ever want to fire up the old Betamax. Now where did I put my Laserdisc's?