In 1972, three years before Sony’s Betamax, more than a decade before Blockbuster, and 25 years before Netflix, Cartrivision – based in San Jose, California – brought Americans into the era of on-demand video with the first consumer videotape recorder available in the U.S., according to Fast Company.
Sony had built a video-tape recorder before this (the U-Matic), but it was made for television studios, not for consumers.
Cartridge Television’s “Cartrivision” could record and play back color-TV programs, play prerecorded videos, act as a closed-circuit security camera, and even play back home movies recorded on its companion video camera.
Cartrivision was a home-entertainment center with the TV and video recorder sold together as one unit.
The cartridges – 8-inch plastic squares – were inserted into a bottom-hinged compartment that closed into the color-TV console “with the thunk of a car door,” writes Fast Company. Cartrivision could fast-forward and rewind tapes. It also had a simple wind-down timer for scheduling recordings.
In addition to offering reusable blank tapes starting at $15 for a 15-minute cartridge, Cartrivision was also quick to recognize the value of video content and offered a catalog of 100 to 200 tape cartridges to buy or rent.
Just as with later VCRs, the selection ranged from wholesome family entertainment (Roger Ramjet cartoons) to X-rated movies (Private Duty Nurses).
“This will put pornography back in the home where it belongs,” said an unnamed employee of Hornhill and Weeks-Hemphill, a Cartrivision investor, in a 1973 Washington Post article.
Most of the films available for purchase—prices ranged from $13 to $40—were instructional or cultural programs. Hollywood releases were supposedly available only for rental, at $3 to $6 a pop.
The latter included such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. Strangelove, and High Noon.
That the company was able to offer Hollywood releases at all was good, given Hollywood’s resentment towards home video in the 70s. That resentment led to the famous “Betamax case” of Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.
Just as today’s iTunes Store enforces time limits on digital movie rental via digital-rights management technology, Cartrivision employed analog-rights management: rented tapes, offered in red casings, could be rewound only with equipment available at retailers. That ensured that a consumer could only watch a movie once.
Integrated with a color TV, Cartrivision could record and play back color programming. However, it offered a monochrome “instant replay” video camera and further optional microphone that could be used to make home movies.
Even though the camera, tapes, and home-TV player all came from one company, the video cartridges couldn’t be moved from the camera to the TV console, like the VHS-C tapes that would come come a decade later. Playing back the recordings required hooking up cables to jacks on the Cartrivision side of the TV.
Rather than sell its system directly under its own brand, Cartrivision attracted a number of prominent TV and retailer brands, including Admiral, Emerson, Teledyne Packard Bell, Macy’s, Montgomery Ward, and Sears. Then, as now, there was a fair amount of product relabeling. The Montgomery Ward unit, for instance, used an Admiral chassis.
Cartrivision was the first video tape recorder made available in the U.S. Cartrivision had contemporary competition of sorts with machines such as the Philips N1500, which saw marginally more success in Europe.
The Philips device was expensive for its time (£600, or about $11,700 in today’s dollars), but had advantages. It was available as a standalone unit, where as Cartrivision came with a TV, as a home entertainment center.
The Phillips device also offered better video quality on its hour-long videocassettes. It also had a programmable digital timer and the ability to record shows on a channel that wasn’t being watched via its own tuner, which allowed the TV to be turned off during recording. Its fast-forward and rewind buttons used standard piano-style keys and didn’t require switching into a separate mode as Cartrivision did.
Philips looked into bringing the device to the U.S. in 1977, but encountered technical difficulties resulting from differences between the American NTSC broadcast standard and the European PAL standard. And by that time, the company was looking to VHS as the future of videotape.
I CAN BRING YOU WHATEVER YOU WANT TO SEE, WHENEVER YOU WANT TO SEE IT.
With the U.S. market to itself, Cartrivision pushed hard on marketing the wonder of its machine. The Hollywood spotlight even briefly shined on it in an episode of What’s My Line? in which the panelists had to guess that the contents of a Cartrivision cartridge contained the opening of the very program they were on. (It took panelist Henry Morgan less than a minute to do so.)
Cartrivision indulged the medium it served with its advertising and instructional materials, too. Indeed, save for period fashions, background music straight out of a Brady Bunch episode, and gender stereotypes (“While you’re at the meeting, your wife simply inserts a blank cartridge, presses the record button, turns the selector switch, and records the program in full color.”), its promo videos bring to mind pitches that accompany crowdfunding campaigns. The company was not shy about using effusive language for its “experience center,” with the voice of the anthropomorphized Cartrivision noting, “I can bring you whatever you want to see, whenever you want to see it.”
Alas, for all its pioneering, Cartrivision attracted a very small audience and failed spectacularly over the course of a little more than a year. The product suffered from a range of problems. First among these was price. In 1972, even standard color TVs were still pricey: only about half of American homes had one. The mass market was loath to cough up Cartrivision’s asking price of $1,600 (about $9,100 in today’s dollars).
Cartrivision also had its user experience failings. Here’s how one enthusiast site describes its operation:
“[T]o go into fast forward, you press down the FF button and turn the function selector knob to the rewind position. Kind of like going into record mode. (Press & hold record button, turn selector to play.) This takes two hands and even then is cumbersome to say the least. Notice that the positioning of the controls is near the height of most people’s ankles! Behind the smoked cover . . . are two additional mode switches and the mechanical sleep timer. The logic of these switches is bewildering in its (unnecessary) complexity.”
The Cartrivision’s picture was reportedly fuzzy. The product recorded only every third video frame, in an early form of analog compression.
Unfortunately, due to poor luck or poor planning, the company stored many of its cartridges in a warehouse so humid that many of the tapes were destroyed.
Some also claim that advance pronouncements from RCA about its forthcoming SelectaVision MagTape VCR, which never shipped, harmed Cartrivision. In 1973, Avco, the company that manufactured Cartrivision, pulled out, and founder Frank Stanton was forced to lay off staff and slash work on projects such as a standalone version of the product.
But like today’s startup entrepreneurs, the company’s staff were true believers. A radio report on the closure of Cartrivision notes that employees came in the day after they were let go to keep the company going, perhaps in hopes of a salvation that never arrived.
In 1975, Sony shipped the first Betamax systems in Japan. It undercut the price of Cartrivision even at the premium Sony was able to charge. JVC followed with the even less expensive first VHS VCR the following year. Even if it had seen more early success, Cartrivision was doomed to be crushed in the looming war between these formats, both of which avoided some of its quirks.
The ultimate paradox of Cartrivision was that it looked like just another color TV of the era. Fast Company claims that its invisibility contributed to challenges on the sales floor.
The “I am Cartrivision” video (seen above) acknowledges this by noting, “At first, you probably thought I was a color television set.” However, behind the scenes, the company was attempting to move mountains in a prototypical technology-entertainment ecosystem, bringing together licensed hardware (the TV manufacturers and cameras), content (the movies available to purchase and rent), services (the rental rewinding and catalogs), and distribution (the retailers).