Let’s all watch the Scopitone!: 15 never-too-popular obsolete entertainment formats
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Long before MTV, entertainment moguls looked for ways to get proto-“music videos” in front of fans’ eyes. As early as the ’30s, home-movie buffs with sound systems could order short film reels of musicians in action. And in the ’60s, neighborhood bars across Western Europe—and even some in America—featured Scopitone jukeboxes, which played songs accompanied by images, usually featuring the singer in luxurious locales and/or surrounded by scantily clad dancers. The format waned in popularity by the end of the decade, in part because the biggest acts of the era weren’t participating in the Scopitone revolution. But many of the clips for those old Scopitones have survived, and can be found on DVD and online, for those with a high tolerance for cheesy Euro-pop and colorful bikinis.
“Okay, American consumer, can we interest you in a disposable DVD that you can buy for $4 and play for 48 hours? No? What if we told you the discs were only available at Circuit City and a few smaller chains, were mostly pan-and-scan, had no special features, and needed a proprietary set-top player with a phone line in order to work? Sounds great, right? Hello?” This was the comically misguided pitch Circuit City offered the public for DIVX, an exclusive pay-per-view-style DVD-rental service that really had no upside for consumers at all, especially with DVD sales and conventional rentals thriving. (On top of that, DIVX players were initially twice the cost of standard DVD players.) It’s hard to fathom what the draw was to consumers—though DIVX’s heavy encryption and regulation made it appealing to the movie industry—but the format died only a year after its 1998 launch. The announced cost to Circuit City on the debacle? $114 million. The actual cost? Likely three times that much, and as a consequence of general corporate incompetence, Circuit City itself.
3-5. Digital Audio Tape/Digital Compact Cassette/MiniDisc
One of the biggest mistakes technology-driven businesses make is trying to predict what consumers will want based strictly on what they’ve done in the past. Compact discs became a hit not just because of their claims to higher audio quality, but because the format was as portable as cassette tapes and allowed users to jump directly to their favorite songs in ways that even a turntable couldn’t duplicate. In other words: It was actually new, offering consumers features they didn’t even know they wanted until they experienced them. Flush with that success, the format’s co-creators, Sony and Phillips, began work—separately—on improving the audio cassette, so music buffs wouldn’t have to dupe CDs and make mixes on cruddy analog tapes anymore.
First out of the gate was Sony’s Digital Audio Tape, which arrived later than promised and was plagued by record-industry resistance (since the copying-averse major labels couldn’t see any advantage in better-quality replication) and consumer-unfriendly pricing (which was higher than intended because of currency-exchange rates and the expense of a prolonged development process). DAT became popular among the ranks of professional music-makers, but didn’t cross over to the masses, so Phillips swooped in with the Digital Compact Cassette, the advantage of which was that DCC players could play standard audiocassettes as well. But Phillips’ timing proved poor, since Sony had already outpaced it with the MiniDisc, a tiny, recordable CD in a plastic case. As with the DAT and the DCC, though, MiniDiscs failed to catch on in part because record companies were reluctant to release albums in the new formats—which might’ve driven sales of the respective players—and in part because the average consumer didn’t really need what these formats were offering. Around the time the MiniDisc was introduced, compact-disc recorders came down in price, and not long after that, mp3 players became commonplace. The “how to make a mix” problem had been solved in ways more convenient and innovative than Sony or Phillips expected.
6-7. Supervinyl LPs/Ultradisc 24K gold CDs
In the late ’70s, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab began catering to audiophiles with its “Original Master Recordings” series, featuring classic albums remastered at half-speed from the original tapes and pressed onto 180-gram Supervinyl LPs in limited editions. The success of the line established a market for extra-high-fidelity audio at a premium price, which record companies have tried to cater to ever since. Mobile Fidelity—which was later bought out by Music Direct—continued the “Original Master Recordings” series in the CD era, first pressing discs onto aluminum, and then onto gold-plated “Ultradiscs.” Out-of-print gold CDs produced by Mobile Fidelity and other outfits continue to command a premium on the collectors’ market because they do sound good (at least the ones that have been remastered with the care that MFSL was known for in its heyday), and also because nothing says “I paid extra for this” like shiny, shiny gold.
8-9. “DBX-encoded” vinyl/Super Audio CDs
One selling point of Supervinyl LPs and Ultradisc CDs was that—theoretically at least— consumers could appreciate their enhanced sonic qualities on standard home stereo systems. Not so with DBX-encoded vinyl records, which were introduced in the ’70s and required special decoding equipment to unlock the expanded dynamic range the discs featured. Not enough rank-and-file music buffs were willing to make that investment, and the format died out right around the time CDs were introduced. So far, the similar Super Audio CD format has escaped the fate of DBX-encoded vinyl, though it has yet to become the sensation that Sony and Phillips hoped it would be when they co-introduced it in 1999. Boasting superior dynamics and storage, SACDs have remained relatively successful with audiophiles, but the various attempts to popularize the technology—by making PlayStation 3 systems SACD-compatible, and by introducing “hybrid” discs that can also play on standard CD players—haven’t taken hold. Consumers tend to be interested in new formats, not expensive improvements to what they already have.
Though technically inferior to Betamax, VHS handily won the battle to determine which videotape format would dominate the home market by the mid-’80s. Then it hung around for years before ultimately being supplanted by DVDs at the turn of the 21st century. The move from bulky cassettes to slim discs now looks inevitable, but the JVC-created VHS format did at least try to evolve in order to survive. First introduced in 1987, S-VHS—the “s” stands for “super”—received an aggressive marketing push from JVC in the late ’80s, with good reason. Superior to traditional VHS, S-VHS could record both video and audio at an appreciably higher rate. But “appreciably” didn’t translate into sales, due to the higher price tag of S-VHS VCRs and tapes, not to mention the film studios’ failure to embrace the format. VHS had another shot in 2001 when JVC began to push the high-def-compatible D-VHS it had first introduced in 1998 as a competing format for the DVD. It eventually went the way of S-VHS.
12. HD DVD
Here’s a format war that took place partially in the battlefield of Michael Bay’s head: After Paramount Pictures decided to release its films exclusively on HD DVD, Bay threw a tantrum on his blog: “I want people to see my movies in the best formats possible. For them to deny people who have Blu-ray sucks! They were progressive by having two formats. No Transformers 2 for me!” For 24 hours, we lived in a world where HD DVD was a viable format with major studio backing and the Transformers franchise was dead in the water. Though Bay quickly changed his tune, agreed to make another Transformers movie, and hailed the look of 300 on HD DVD (“it rocks”), it became the Betamax of the HD disc wars anyway, succumbing to Blu-ray as the dominant format. In terms of quality, this wasn’t as clear a case as VHS vs. Beta, where the inferior format won out. Arguments mostly played out in the realm of techno-geeks slinging terms like “lossless audio” and “macro-blocking.” For consumers, such discussions just compounded the confusion and frustration of choosing between two incompatible yet mostly indistinguishable formats. In spite of Toshiba, Microsoft, and Warner Bros. backing HD DVD, Blu-ray simply found more support in the end, and early adopters are now stuck watching 300 again.
What made a CD3, or Mini CD, different from a regular CD? It had a diameter of three inches instead of five. What else made it different? It held about 20 minutes worth of music instead of a full-sized CD’s 70-plus, and if you wanted to play it in a tray-loading CD player, instead of one with a spindle, you often needed a special adapter. Rockin’! They were, however, cute, and they preserved the traditional physical divide between 7-inch 45s and 12-inch LPs. That cuteness didn’t allow them to flourish, however. After proving briefly popular—or at least widely available—in the late ’80s, they largely disappeared before the Clinton era.
14. Videodisc/CED (Capacitance Electronic Discs)
Say this for the Videodisc, produced by RCA for its “SelectaVision” players in 1981: Unlike with laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, it was impossible for people to scratch them or get their greasy paws all over the playing surface, because they were protected by a plastic encasement that could only be removed by the player itself. (Or a flathead screwdriver.) But with an image quality roughly equivalent to VHS, plus a weak storage capacity (one hour per side), no ability to record, and a needle-based analog playback that frequently skipped, it was quickly doomed to failure, especially after a long development period delayed its appearance on the market for several costly years. The commercials touted Videodiscs’ dubious affordability: Titles like Airplane! and Grease were available for “as low as $15,” and the RCA SelectaVision player itself could be purchased for less than $500. What family in 1981 couldn’t spring for that?
Whenever technology takes a leap, there’s always some uncertainty as to where it’ll land. Many of the entries on this list lost format battles during this time of uncertainty. But what about those who try to restage a battle that’s already been won? Backed by the Chinese government, Chinese electronic manufacturers tried to skirt paying DVD patent royalties by developing a proprietary rival form called EVD (short for “Enhanced Versatile Disc”). That might not have been a terrible idea in 1997, when DVDs first appeared. But by 2003, when China first made the push, or in December 2006, when major Chinese electronics manufacturers announced the country would switch from DVD to EVD by 2008, it seemed a bit silly. And it was. But in an odd postscript, the Chinese-developed CBHD, a Blu-ray competitor derived from the failed HD DVD format, did catch on by offering HD movies at a fraction of the cost of Blu-rays. Sometimes a wrong-sounding idea ends up pointing the way to the future after all, especially when it offers the future for cheap.