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The long long march to an Optical Video Disc launch

Page under construction - many pictures to follow


Sony placed this advert in the New York Times April 1981

A full ten years elapsed between Philips' first demonstration of Laservision, originally called VLP or video long player, and the first domestic sales in Britain. 

In the 1960s researchers at MCA in America, and Philips in Holland, were working separately on the same idea; a reflective disc with pits in the surface read by a laser. In 1972 Phlips demonstrated Laservision, then called VLP (Video Long Player) to the press in Eindoven.

The same year in Hollywood MCA formed a division called Discovison. On the set at Universal used for I Love Lucy, Discovision and gave a similar demonstration. 

Over the next two years DV and Philips came together and agreed a joint standard for a single-sided 12 inch disc, to hold 30 minutes of colour tv and FM sound. Soon after playing time was doubled, by bonding two single sided discs together, back to back.

After demonstrations in Japan, Berlin and Cannes through 1974, Philips announced that the VLP video disc would be "available in the UK in 1976/77". This would have put video disc into the market ahead of video tape. But nothing happened.

In June 1977 MCA signed with Pioneer to make industrial players. The CIA stored mug shots on video discs.  Playing time was doubled again by the CLV (constant linear velocity) technique which later became standard for compact disc.

The rotational speed of the disc varies as it plays, to spread the recorded information evenly over the whole area of the disc.

The original video disc format CAV (constant angular velocity) was used where still frame display was needed because on a CAV disc one turn of the spiral carries one full tv picture. The player sensed the difference between discs and automatically adjusted.

In November 1977, five years after the first working demonsration, Philips announced that it would market the VLP video disc in the United States in the Autumn of 1978. Sales in Europe, said Philips, would not be earlier than late 1979.

The 1978 launch pledge was kept - just. The first sales of laser video disc to the public, by Philips' American subsidiary Magnavox, were in a trial launch of Laservision in Atlanta, Georgia, in December 1978.

The next year MCA tied up with IBM to form Discovision Associates and build a disc prssing plant in California. The discs were of very poor quality and in 1981 DVA sold the factory to Pioneer. Pioneer coined the world Laserdisc, while Philips stuck with Laservison.

After that DVA concentrated on demanding patent royalties from any firm making video discs and players - and then CDs and players. This was in addition to the royalties claimed by Philips under its own patents.

Philips later paid a one-off sum (believed to be $20 million) for the right to use the DVA patents.

The Georgia Laservision launch spread slowly across the whole of America.

CD audio was launched in 1983 and in June 1984 Pioneer Pioneer strengthened its position with Laserdisc in the NTSC countries Japan and the US by developing the 8 inch video disc for music video. Then came a Combi player with solid sate laser which played 5 inch CD audio discs, as well as 12 inch and 8 inch video.

At the same time Pioneer also modified the NTSC laser disc standard, by incorporating a digital soundtrack in video discs as well as a conventional FM stereo soundtrack. Most of the major Japanese companies then sold NTSC Combi players.

As a result, in Japan and the US the launch of CD Video was a relatively minor step -  simply the offer of 5 inch discs with five minutes of video in addition to the other disc formats already handled by Combi players.

While laser video disc sales were developing slowly in NTSC countries, a PAL format fumbled onto the European market.  In December 1978, as the Atlanta launch created world interest, Philips had talked of Laservision in Britain "as early as possible in 1980".

In September 1979 Philips switched to promising a European launch in 1981 and announced the decision to convert the old Mullard valve factory at Blackburn into a disc pressing plant. This would be in pilot production in the second half of 1980. Blackburn would use a new process called 2P (photopolymerisation) instead of pressing.

The 2P process was later abandoned as too slow. 

In March 1980 Philips HQ in Holland decided that VLP in Britain would be the responsibility of Philips' Audio Division - not the video divison. Later Philips made a similar decision on CDV. 

In October 1980 trial laser video production began at Blackburn and the factory said it was "bang on schedule".  And in December Philips said it had "hit its disc program targets three months ahead of schedule...disc production is progressing well".

Said Jimmy Dunkley Divisional Director of Philips Audio and Laservision "it's six months to D day - disc day".

The same month, Philips neck said it would sell "tens of thousands" of players in 1981 and by 1986 would have sold 700,000 players with discs moving at a rate of 18 million a year. 

"Within fifteen years Laservision penetration is expected to reach at least 30% of UK households", said the company. In the event, Philips sold only around 10,000 players across the whole of Europe.

In December 1980 Philips threw a press conference, announcing the change of name from VLP to Laservison, and promising a 1981 launch with 250 titles by the Autumn.

"I won't allow my team to suffer from credibility lacking in other products" pledged Dunkley, distancing himself from the problems then being caced by Philips video cassette divison.

In November 1981 Philips promised a Laservision launch in 1982. "Laservision player production is well up to schedule ... the bulk of the players will be manufactured at Philips plant at Hasselt in Belgium", the company announced as 1981 drew to a close. "Plans for the UK marketing of Laservision are well advanced". 

As Laservison lost its chances of a lead on video tape, and the VCR standards battle hotted up, Sony pushed Beta with an anti-disc campaign. 

"We will not be introducing a consumer video disc player onto this or any other market", said Tim Steel, then Sony UK's national sales and marketing manager.

"The story of the video disc", ran the headline in a full page advert in the New York Times of April 14, 1981, "It's a rather short one. The video disc player can play back pre-recorded programming. The end".

The rest of the page was left entirely blank - an acre of white space condemning the concept of video disc.

But in April 1980 Sony had begun pressing video discs, for industrial use.

Later Sony joined the the Combi bandwaggon in Japan.

As 1981 dawned a May launch looked less and less likely. In March Philips switched to promising a Laservision launch in the autumn. This was confirmed by Jimmy Dunkley, in a speech given to the RETRA conference in April.

But nothing happened; there was no sight of either discs or players.  "I am sorry if we have inconvenienced the press" said Dunkley in April 1981 when he was forced to cancel the May launch and re-schedule it for the autumn. "There is no problem with the players, but we are delaying for sound marketing reasons. The depth of the recession is even greater than expected".

Commented one magazine at the time: "The silly thing is that Philips could have just as easily quoted Autumn for the launch in the first place and nobody would have batted an eyelid, because everyone knows that Autumn is a logical launch time. But as it is, Laservision's shining image has attracted the tarnish of doubt before ever reaching the market".

In September 1981, to try and answer mounting press disquiet, Philips flew a party of journalists to the Blackburn pressing plant. It was clear that the plant was nowhere near ready for mass production. Women staff sat in front of tv screens playing every single disc that came off the production line, all the way through. There was still a 50% reject rate.

On the flight back to London Jimmy Dunkley could do nothing but admit that the autumn 1981 launch had been cancelled. He also admitted that Philips dare no longer even promise a launch date and in a bizarre episode asked the press to cast lots on a likely launch date.  By March 1982 Philips had sufficient confidence to promise a May launch in London and the Home Counties.

"It's springtime for Laservision" promised Philips. Sure enough, albeit more than five years later than planned, Laservision duly crept onto a limited market. 

On May 26, 1982 the Evening Standard published a four page advertising supplement announcing the first availability of Laservision, and 120 software titles.  Player price was originally £449 plus an extra £50 for remote control. Discs cost £16-18.

Philips sold only around 1,000 players. But in August 1982 Philips announced a nationwide launch from October onwards, with £3 million to be spent on advertising. Pioneer followed through with a launch in November. 

But sales just did not take off, mainly because shops showed little interest in stocking discs. In theory there were several hundred titles available, and each year through until 1986 saw more announcements of more software, with more brave words from Philips and more money spent on selling the format - but still only a handful of shops bothered to stock more than a few discs. 

Philips tried everything; first subsidising the production of discs, to minimise the software companies' risk, and then buying discs outright for sale on to the public, thereby reducing the software companies risk to zero. 

By September 1982 player price was down to £449 and £399 plus free discs worth £50.

In October 1983 Philips claimed a catalogue of 400 titles and a thousand dealers across the country. But player prices were down to £299, still with free discs worth £50.

In March 1984 Philips assured that "No-one should have any doubts about the future market for video disc". Player price was cut to £229.  In March 1984 Philips said that "No-one should have any doubts about the future market for video disc". Player price was cut to £229.

In May the price of discs was slashed by around half to around £10.  Another £2 million was spent on national advertising. And still the format did not take off. 

In July 1984 Philips desperately announced that LV player sales for June had been double those for the corresponding period of 1983. "Double what?" the press asked, but got no reply.

By July 1986 feature film discs were going for as little as £4.99.  By late 1986 the format was tacitly agreed to be a dead duck for domestic use and all efforts went into selling Laservision as an industrial tool.

Wholesaler Lightning continued to stock film discs which sold to a captive market of a few thousand for £20 or £30 each.

Then came the promise of CD Video and digital sound. So Laservision efectively died.

The idea of a Combination or "Combi" player to handle all sizes of laser discs, both audio and video, seemed appealing.

 After advance publicity leaks, Philips formally announced the CDV format in Holland, in March 1987. It was then expensively unveiled to the world at shows, exhibitions and parties held in America, Germany, Japan and Britain throughout the year.

But promised sales dates came and went. CDV proved to be another failure.













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