Questions and issues of the week: The end of an era for Betamax

VHS won the video format war, but its less favoured cousin is a trove of 1980s nostalgia

Within weeks of our buying a Sony, VHS-only video libraries sprouted up around the country offering all those Schwarzenegger and Stallone films.

Within weeks of our buying a Sony, VHS-only video libraries sprouted up around the country offering all those Schwarzenegger and Stallone films.

 

The announcement this week that Sony was finally going to cease production of Betamax video cassettes was a bit like hearing some dimly remembered star from Hollywood’s Golden Age had finally died at the age of 96 – a brief moment of nostalgia for a bygone era, followed by a sharp jolt of surprise at the realisation that the long-forgotten relic had lasted this long.

Betamax was one of those technologies that seemed to become a historical artefact within moments of its appearance – it is chiefly remembered for losing the video format wars to VHS. It holds a prominent place in US legal history for the 1984 Supreme Court case, Sony Corp vs Universal City Studios, which established the right to record broadcast television for home use.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, my father painstakingly researched the relative merits of Betamax and VHS and plumped for what was widely regarded as the superior format. A gigantic grey Sony box took up permanent station beneath our television set. It looked like the clunky, lumbering cousin of a DeLorean, with an elaborate top-loading cassette mechanism that leapt up with a fright.

But within weeks of that fateful purchase, it seemed, VHS was declared the victor. Almost immediately, VHS-only video libraries sprouted up around the country offering all those Schwarzenegger and Stallone films.

There would be no rentals for us, however, so we made do with home-taping, carefully recording nearly every film that appeared on RTÉ, ads and all. And so our eclectic movie library grew – I wore out the first Superman film, Back to the Future and The Goonies were watched and rewatched until every gag was memorised, while the likes of Babette’s Feast and Jean de Florette constituted the arthouse section. It wasn’t exactly Netflix, but it was a pretty fine collection of entertainment.

Perverse pride

That perverse pride seems to have been shared by Sony, by the looks of it – the final cassettes will roll off the production line next March, 14 years after the last Betamax machine was produced.

Like the aged Hollywood star who dies 50 years after last appearing on a big screen, Betamax will be mourned by few, but the fond memories of its fleeting heyday can never be erased. Unless you accidentally use the wrong cassette and tape over Gremlins, in which case there will be big trouble.

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