In a Nutshell
The legend is that Sony’s Betamax lost the “Videotape Format Wars” to VHS because Sony refused to mass produce pornographic films. While it may have helped in VHS’s victory, there is no definite proof that there was much of an influence at all.
The Whole Bushel
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, a war was raging; it was called the Videotape Format War. There were two main opponents in the war: Betamax and the Video Home System (VHS).
The first consumer level VCR for use in homes was the Philips N1500 in 1972, which used large square videocassettes. The system was unreliable, especially on tapes that were 60 minutes long. This was followed by Sony’s Betamax which was showcased in 1974 and released in 1975. The Betamax was much more reliable than the cassettes the N1500 used. Sony thought that, for the good of the industry, companies would only stick to one format of videotape (preferably theirs).
That’s when JVC released their system which used a new form of video cassette, the VHS. Shortly afterward, Philips adopted the VHS system for their VCRs in the North American market. During the mid-1970s, there were other competing formats in the home video market but they quickly fell by the wayside. It inevitably came down to VHS versus Betamax.
When it came to selling VCRs, they were trying to pitch two different things. Betamax was offering quality to consumers. They offered people the ability to record shows with a sharper image and superior sound. The major downfall of Betamax was it could only record for two hours. They were physically capable of recording for longer, but the quality would be poorer. Sony decided to go against doing that, hoping their superior product would win out. VHS had two things going for it: It could record for four hours and it was less expensive than Betamax.
In the end, what is most likely the biggest contributor to the downfall of Betamax was the price difference. On average Betamax players were about $1,000 while a VCR that played a VHS tape was around $300. The consumer simply was not willing to pay that much more for slightly better picture and sound. Especially when VHS was a good product, even if it wasn’t as good as Betamax. The reason Betamax lost the war was simply because VHS was a better deal.
However, the myth is that the real reason that Sony’s Betamax failed was because they didn’t agree to license to pornography companies. It is true that Sony didn’t let pornography companies use their technology for mass production. Another factor that lends credence to the myth is the era when the home video was released.
It may seem strange to people with the internet, where you can accidentally stumble upon porn, but before home videos, adult films used to be hard to come by. Prior to the VCR, people had to go to scummy cinemas in order to see adult films. As you can imagine, seeing a porno in a theater can be kind of awkward.
The VCR was also released at a pivotal time in movie history, when the era of the “Porn Chic” era had also been ushered in. In the ’70s, pornography was more popular and more socially acceptable than ever. So while it was moderately okay to go to a theater to see stag films, theaters did not grant the same freedom and anonymity that home video did. When VHS was developed, it was used by different companies and as a result, pornography was already being released on VHS, with a large collection available. On the other hand, a Betamax porno is an extremely rare find.
However, there is no proof that all this led to the downfall of Betamax. There has never been a study of people to prove that they bought VHS just so they could watch pornography. When people were planning on purchasing a VCR, what seems like a more obvious reason they bought VHS? Seven hundred dollars in savings or the fact they can watch dirty movies at home? The ability to play porno at home was just the icing on the cake and not the decisive blow in the Videotape Format War.