Betamax Didn’t Lose To VHS Because Of Adult Films

“Pornography? I’ve been looking at it all my life and it hasn’t affected me anything.” —Charles Manson

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.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Tomasz Sienicki
TIME: When Porno Was Chic
Business Week: Next-Gen DVD’s Porn Struggle
Gizmodo: The Dirty Backstabbing Mess Called Betamax vs VHS

  • lbatfish

    “Theaters did not grant the same freedom and anonymity that home video did.”

    An important lesson that PeeWee Herman tragically failed to reckon with before it was . . . too late.

    • Hillyard

      Plus the floors at home usually aren’t as sticky.

      • Lisa 39

        Ugh, i hate sticky floors.

      • lbatfish

        Were you referring to the floors of ANY theater, or the floors of porno . . . hmmm, actually, never mind — I don’t really want to know!

  • TheMadHatter

    I have three rows of VHS and another row on the shelf below… I feel cultured.

  • Hillyard

    I remember the great video wars of the early ’80s. Many a good movie gave its all for Betamax, only for the final victory to go to VHS.

    • lbatfish

      My first purchase of a “home VCR” was for the community hall of a village that I was the city manager of, and I went for Beta because of its superior specs. Sigh . . . I hadn’t reckoned with the fact that Sony’s opinion of what Beta licensing was worth was unfortunately much higher than what the general public thought.

      Needless to say, when Sony later got into the “memory card” business, I knocked any cameras that used their proprietary “Memory Stick” off my “models to consider buying” list, and was later glad that T did.

      “Once burned, twice cautious.”

  • Exiled Phoenix

    When you have a big dick in a theater… People notice, then they gawk. I tell ya, its a problem when trying to rub one out in a movie theater.

    • lbatfish

      Big enough that they make you pay for two tickets instead of just one?

      • Exiled Phoenix

        There are times I’m out shopping… See some hot chick and get a partial woody… damn if I don’t get stopped at the door by security thinking I’m trying to sneak something out.
        I tell you… it ain’t all fun and tapping strange.

  • Casey R Williams

    Despite porn being one of the most viewed types of content on the internet there’s no study confirming anyone ever got online to view porn.

  • TruthorBeauty

    The article sounds like an attempt to rewrite history. Prior to the VHS, the vast majority of americans had never seen a porn film. While the intended use of the technology was to give Johnny Lunch Bucket the ability to see TV shows and movies that were on during work, the unintended consequence was to open up porn to a much wider audience. The article also actually reinforces that Beta lost out to VHS because
    of porn when it acknowledges that porn on BETA is extremely rare. The internet though has made this a debate of an irrelevant anachronism by becoming the superhighway (free mass distribution) of porn.

  • Kandi Klover

    Ahhh I love the old days and how different eberything was without the internet and social interaction was a must. I still have many VHS of Fursuit sex porn and yiff animations collected from many furries conventions even a couple betamax, only 2 cuz no one liked sony. Those were some good masturbatory years

  • Ashram13

    If you were to be licensed from Sony as a company that distributed content on Betamax, all you’d have is the right to display the Betamax trademark on your product.

    Otherwise, Sony could do nothing to stop you if decided to distribute anything on their format, porn or otherwise. And there was quite a bit of porn titles on Beta. But, there were more titles on VHS.

    However, greater availability of such content on VHS over Betamax was more of a symptom than a cause.

    Sony’s experience with U-Matic guided their business strategy towards Beta, particularly licensing to 3rd party manufacturers of VCRs and blank cassettes, which included strict adherence to their technical specifications on top of the fact that the licensing was a substantial expense.

    JVC, on the other hand, shrewdly decided to keep the cost of being a 3rd party manufacturer of VHS VCRs and cassettes low in an effort to spurn adoption of their format. In addition, JVC’s technical demands were more lenient and the VHS standard was simpler and had fewer engineering demands compared to Beta.

    On top of that, VHS was capable of longer recording times for a given thickness of tape because the larger size of the cassette allowed for a greater length of tape to be wound into it.

    In all, it was cheaper to make blank VHS cassettes and VHS VCRs. There were more VHS VCRs and blank cassettes for the customer to choose from and the retail price was lower on average compared to Beta. Couple that with the fact that VHS quality was good enough for most people and that the longer recording times reflected better value for the money, and more people would end up buying VHS over Beta.

    And, as software must follow hardware, obviously more content would be made available on VHS to appeal to the greater installed base … including porn (which is why it’s a symptom rather than a cause).

  • Michael Mo

    The author made a critical error. He states that when Betamax came out they allowed 2 hour recording time which is totally incorrect. Betamax had the market cornered when they first came out, because VHS had not even come out yet, so Betamax had a 2 year head start. But Betamax only gave consumers 1 hour recording time, not 2 hours like the author stated. So when VHS did come out they allowed 2 hour, 4 etc. hour recording times. (This allowed consumers to record TV movies, or movies on cable, as well as baseball and football games, or sports in general) Had Betamax allowed 2 hour recording times, they may have lasted longer than they did, or potentially won the war (maybe).

    While it is true that Beta had porn titles available to rent or own, but because Betamax only allowed 1 hour recording times when they first came out, VHS had 70% of the market share sewn up when Beta FINALLY came out with longer tape recording times. If I had been a consumer in the 80’s and I had the choice between spending several hundred dollars less on a device that gave me more titles available both porn and non porn, then of course I am going to go the route of more titles, less money while sacrificing very little picture quality route. So yes in fact porn did help win the war for VHS, but along with other factors. More people buying VHS< more affordable, more porn titles available as well as other titles Porn may not have been the largest deciding factor, but it was certainly a factor in the grand scheme of things as to why VHS won that particular war with Betamax.

  • Emil Fonseca

    ‘Twas ‘Vertical Helical Scan’ before it was marketed as Video Home System.

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  • Originally, Beta tapes were only one hour long, and some Beta sets (e.g. Sanyo) competitive with VHS price-wise.