The consumer VCR was a dream product. In fact the consumer electronics or “Brown Goods” industry continually dreams of another product like the VCR – which everyone wanted or needed even if they did not realise it until they could buy it.
It’s hard now to imagine the excitement of being able to do what had never before been possible – set a machine to record a TV programme to watch later, instead of having to choose between missing the programme or staying at home to watch it.
There was no no-hardware/no-software, no-chicken/no-egg issue. When the hardware was launched, there was already plenty of software in the form of TV broadcasts to time-shift and watch later, and share. As the hardware park grew, so did the opportunities for pre-recorded software sales and rental.
But the VCR was not an overnight success, and the pioneers got arrows in their backs. In the late 1960s Hitachi came up with Electronic Video Recording, a film-based format for playback only, and later National (Panasonic) adapted an audio cassette recorder to record still colour pictures.
The first proper VCRs were bulky and clumsy beasts, designed for professional use such as in education.
The home video story began on May 20th 1974, when, in the Pinafore Room of the Savoy Hotel in London, Philips announced “a landmark in the history of television and the start of a revolution in home entertainment”.
The N1500 VCR was the first video cassette recorder with a built-in tuner to receive programmes without a TV set, a timer to switch the recorder on and off, and an RF modulator to feed signals in to the aerial socket of a domestic TV – all the essentials of the new-fangled ‘time-shifting’. This was long before the days of SCART and HDMI video connections – so the RF connector was vital.
In Europe there was no choice of make or model. You bought the Philips N1500 or nothing. It cost £388.62. Grundig made a similar machine.
The relatively high cost of the machine was a big deterrent. But even more of a deterrent was the high cost of feeding it with tape in a clumsy double decker cassette. For several years taping cost between £20 and £25 an hour. The longest cassettes available lasted only one hour. So it was impossible to tape TV films without changing the tape halfway through. The only pre-recorded cassettes contained business material, or pornography.
All round the world, the race was on to develop a VCR which taped for at least two hours, long enough to time-shift a feature film. In September 1977 Philips came up with the N1700 VCR which ran the tape at slower speed to give over two hours from a one hour cassette.
But by the time the N1700 reached the market, in early 1978, it was already too late. JVC was promising VHS and Sony was promising Betamax.
In May 1978, Grunding squeezed even longer playing time (nearly four hours) from a standard one hour Philips videocassette, by further reducing the tape speed. This was technically clever, but commercially a flop.
Behind the scenes both Philips and Grundig were secretly pinning their faith on yet another European system, Video 2000. Technically this was even more clever (the cassette could be ‘turned over’ like an audio cassette), but Philips made a serious tactical error.
The Dutch company announced full details of the format in June 1979. By the time halfway-to-reasonable V2000 machines reached the shops, in 1981, the Japanese were streets ahead.