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What killed the LaserDisc format?

Posted in collectibles, entertainment, movies, technologies by commorancy on March 1, 2018

Laserdisc-logoThere have been a number of tech documentarian YouTubers who’ve recently posted videos regarding LaserDisc and why it never became popular and what killed it. Some have theorized that VHS had nothing to do with the failure of the LaserDisc format. I contend that LaserDisc didn’t exactly fail, but also didn’t gain much traction.

LaserDisc did have a good run between 1978 and 2002. However, it also wasn’t a resounding success for a number of reasons. While the LaserDisc format sold better in Japan than in the US, it still didn’t get that much traction even in Japan. Though, yes, VHS recorders (among other competitive technologies at the time) did play a big part in LaserDisc’s lackluster consumer acceptance. Let’s explore.

History

While I won’t go into the entire history of the LaserDisc player, let me give a quick synopsis of its history. Let’s start by what it is. LaserDisc (originally named DiscoVision in 1978) began its life as a 12″ optical disc containing analog video and analog audio mca_discovision(smaller sizes would become available later) with discs labeled as MCA DiscoVision. In 1980, Pioneer bought the rights to the LaserDisc technology and dropped the DiscoVision branding in lieu of the LaserDisc and LaserVision brands. It also wouldn’t be until the mid-90s that digital audio and digital video combined would appear on this format. A LaserDisc movie is typically dual sided and would be flipped to watch the second half of a film. They can also be produced single sided. Like VHS had SP and LP speeds that offered less or more recording time, LaserDisc had something similar in terms of content length, but offered no consumer recording capability.

There were two formats of LaserDiscs:

The first format is CAV. CAV stands for constant angular velocity. In short, CAV was a format where the rotational speed remained the same from beginning to end. The benefit for CAV was that it offered solid freeze frames throughout the program. Unlike VHS where freeze frames might be distorted, jump or be noisy, CAV discs offered perfect freeze frames.

It also offered a fast scrubbing speed and slowed play. Later LD players even offered a jog shuttle on the remote to reverse or forward the playback a few frames at a time to as fast as you could spin the wheel. CAV also meant that each frame of video was one rotation of the disc. Keep in mind that NTSC video is interlaced and, therefore, half of the disc ring was one half of the frame and the other half of the disc ring was the other half of the frame. It took a full rotation to create a full NTSC frame.

The NTSC format CAV disc only offered up to 30 minutes per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie would consume 3 sides or two discs. This was the first format of disc introduced during the DiscoVision days. Early content was all CAV.

The second format is CLV. CLV stands for constant linear velocity. This format reduces the rotational speed as the disc reaches the outer edge. You can even hear the motor slow as the movie progresses playback if you’re close enough to the player. I should point out that LaserDiscs read from the center of the media to the outer edge.

LaserDisc players also read from the bottom side of the disc when put into the player. It’s just the opposite of a vinyl LP that reads from the outside in and from the top. This means that the label on the center of the disc refers to the opposite side of the media. The CLV format offers no freeze frame feature. Because the rotational speed drops as the laser moves across the disc, eventually multiple video frames would be contained in a single rotation. Any attempt to freeze frame the picture would show multiple frames of motion. Not very pretty. The freeze frame feature is disabled on CLV formatted discs.

The NTSC formatted CLV disc offers up to 60 minutes of video per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie comfortably fits on one disc. After CLV was discovered to hold more content than a CAV LaserDisc, this format is how the majority of movies were sold once the DiscoVision brand disappeared. Note that many movies used CLV on side one and CAV on side two when less than 30 minutes.

The intent for LaserDisc was to sell inexpensive films forLaserVision_logo home consumption. It all started with the Magnavox Magnavision VH-8000 DiscoVision player which went on sale December 15th, 1978. This player released on this day along with several day one release movies on LaserDisc. The format, at the time, was then called DiscoVision. Because 1978 was basically the height of the disco music era, it made sense why it ended up called DiscoVision. Obviously, this naming couldn’t last when the disco music era closed.

Early Player Reliability

The first players used a visible red laser consisting of a helium-neon laser. The light output looks similar to a red laser pointer. These LD players had pop up lids. This meant you could pop the lid open while the disc was playing, lift the disc and see the red laser in action. The problem with these first players was with the helium-neon laser unit. In short, they became incredibly hot making the unit unreliable. I personally owned one of these open lid style players from Philips and can assert from personal experience that these players were lemons. If they lasted 6 months worth of use, you could count yourself lucky. At the time, when your player was broken, you had to take your player to an authorized service center to get it repaired.

These repair centers were factory authorized, but not run by Philips. Repairs could take weeks requiring constant phone calls to the repair center to get status. The repair centers always seemed overwhelmed with repairs. It just wasn’t worth the hassle of taking the unit in to be repaired once every 6 months, paying for each repair after the warranty ran out. This would have been about 1982 or so. I quickly replaced this player for a new one. I’d already invested in too many LaserDiscs to lose all of the discs that I had.

In 1983-1984 or thereabouts, the optical audio Compact Disc was introduced. These players offered solid-state non-visible lasers to read the CD optical media. As a result of the technology used to read the CD, LaserDisc players heavily benefited from this technology advance. Pioneer, the leading LaserDisc player brand at the time, jumped immediately on board with replacing the red visible laser with very similar solid state lasers being used in CD players.

Once the new laser eye was introduced, reliability increased dramatically. Players became more compact, ran cooler and became more full featured. Instead of being able to play only LaserDiscs, they could now also play CDs of all sizes. This helped push LaserDisc players into the home at a time when LaserDisc needed that kick in the pants. Though, adoption was still very slow.

1984

The year 1984 would be the year of VHS. This is the year when video rental stores would become commonplace. During this time, I helped start up a video rental department for a brand new record store. It was a time when record stores were expanding into video rentals. I don’t know how many VHS tapes I inventoried for the new store. One thing was certain. We did not rent anything other than VHS tapes. No Betamax, no LaserDisc and no CED rentals. We didn’t even stock LaserDiscs or CEDs for sale in this store location. In fact, the chain of record stores where I worked would eventually become Blockbuster and who would adopt the same logo color scheme as the record store chain used. But, that wouldn’t be for a few more years.

VHS was on the verge of and would soon become the defacto format for movie rentals. Why not LaserDisc? Not enough saturation in combination with LaserDisc having the same problem that pretty much all optical media has. It’s easily scratched. Because the LaserDisc surface is handled directly by hands (it has no caddy), this means that the wear and tear on a LaserDisc meant eventually replacing the disc by the rental store. This compared to VHS tape that, so long as the tape remained intact, it could be rented over and over even if there was the occasional drop out from being played too much.

LaserDisc fared far worse on this front. Because there was no easy way to remove the scratches from a disc, once a disc was scratched it meant replacement. Even if the disc was minimally scratched, it could still be unplayable in some players, particularly the red visible laser kind. These older models were not at all tolerant of scratches.

Media Costs

While VHS tape movies cost $40 or $50 or even upwards to $70, LaserDisc movies cost $25 to $30 on average. The cost savings to buy a movie on LaserDisc was fairly substantial. However, you had to get past the sticker shock of the $800-900 you’re required to invest into Pioneer to get a CLD-900 player. This at the time when VHS recorders were $600 or thereabouts. However, VHS recorder prices would continue to drop to about $250 by 1987 (just 3 years later).

LaserDisc player prices never dropped much and always hovered around the $600-$800 price when new. They were expensive. Pioneer was particularly proud of their LaserDisc players and always charged a premium. You could find used players for lower prices, though. Because Pioneer was (ahem) the pioneer in LD equipment at that time, buying into Magnavox or other LD equipment brands meant problems down the road. If you wanted a mostly trouble free LD experience, you bought Pioneer.

Competitors

I would be remiss at not mentioning the CED disc format that showed up on the scene heavily around 1984, even though it was introduced in 1981. CED stands for Capacitance Electronic Disc. It was a then alternative format video media disc conceived in the 1960s by RCA. Unfortunately, the CED project remain stalled for 17 years in development hell at RCA.

CED uses a stylus like an LP and the disc is made of vinyl also like an LP, except you can’t handle it with your hands. This media type is housed in a caddy. To play these discs, you had to purchase a CED player and buy CED media. To play the disc, you would insert the disc caddy into the slot on the front of the unit and then pull it back out. The machine grabbed the disk out of the caddy on insertion. As soon as the caddy is removed, the disc is begins to play. The door to the caddy slot locks when the disc was in motion. Once the mechanism stops moving, the door unlocks and you can insert the caddy, then remove the disc.

Because the CED is read by a stylus, it had its own fair share of problems, not the least of which was skipping and low video quality. LaserDisc was the consumer product leader in image quality all throughout the 80s and 90s until DVD arrived. However, that didn’t stop CED from taking a bite out of the LaserDisc videodisc market. The CED format only served to dilute the idea of the videodisc and confuse consumers on which format to buy. This was, in fact, the worst of all situations for LaserDisc at a time when VHS rentals were appearing at practically any store that could devote space to set up a rental section. Even grocery stores were jumping on board to get a piece of the VHS rental action.

VHS versus LaserDisc rentals

As a result of VHS rentals, which could be found practically everywhere by 1986, renting LaserDiscs (or even CEDs) was always a challenge. Not only was it difficult to find stores to rent a LaserDisc, when you did find them, the selection was less than stellar. In fact, because VHS rentals became so huge during this time, LaserDisc pressings couldn’t compete and started falling behind the VHS releases. VHS became the format released first, then LaserDiscs would appear a short time later. This meant that if you wanted to rent the latest movie, you pretty much had to own a VHS player. If you wanted to watch the movie in higher quality, you had to wait for the LaserDisc version. Even then, you’d have to buy it rather than renting. Renting of LaserDiscs was not only rare to find, but eventually disappeared altogether leaving purchasing a LaserDisc the only option, or you rented a VHS tape.

If you weren’t into rentals and wanted to own a film, then LaserDisc was the overall better way to go. Not only were the discs less expensive, the video and audio would remain the highest home consumer quality until S-VHS arrived. Unfortunately, S-VHS had its own problems with adoption even worse than LaserDisc and this format would fail to be adopted by the general home consumer market. LaserDisc continued to dominate the videophile market for its better picture and eventually digital sound until 1997 when the DVD arrived.

Time Was Not Kind

As time progressed into the late 80s, it would become more difficult to find not only LaserDisc players to buy, but also LaserDiscs. Stores that once carried the discs would begin to clearance them out and no longer carry them. Some electronics stores just outright closed and those outlets to buy players were lost. By the 90s, the only reasonable place to purchase LaserDiscs was via mail order.

There were simply no local electronics stores in my area that carried movie discs any longer. Perhaps you could find them in NYC, but not in Houston. Because they were 12″ in size, this meant a lot of real estate was needed to store and display LaserDiscs. Other than record stores, few stores would want to continue to invest store real estate into this lackluster format, especially when VHS is booming. In a lot of ways, LaserDisc packaging looked like LP records, only with movie posters on the front. This packaging was not likely helpful to the LaserDisc. Because they were packaged almost identically to an LP, including being shrink wrapped (and using white inner sleeves), these discs could easily be confused with LP records when walking by a display of them.

Marketing was a major problem for LaserVision. While there was a kind of consortium of hardware producers that included Pioneer, Philips and Magnavox, there was no real marketing strategy to sell the LaserDisc format to the consumer. Because of this, LaserDisc fell into the niche market of videophiles. Basically, it was a small word of mouth community. This was a time before the Internet. Videophiles were some of the first folks to have a small home theater and they demanded the best video and audio experience, and were willing to shell out cash for it. Unfortunately, this market was quite a small segment. Few people were willing to jump through all of the necessary hoops just to buy an LD player, then mail order a bunch of discs. Yet, the videophiles kept buying just enough to keep this market alive.

Laser Rot

In addition to the hassles of bad marketing, the discs ended up with a bad reputation for a severe manufacturing defect. Even some commercially pressed CDs ended up succumbing to this same fate. The problem is known as laser rot. Laser rot is when the various layers that make up a LaserDisc aren’t sealed properly or using correct adhesives during manufacture. These layers later oxidize causing pitting on the sandwiched metal surface. This oxidation pitting causes the original content pits to be lost over time ending up with snow both in audio and in video. The audio usually goes first, then the video.

Laser rot even appeared early on the earliest pressed DiscoVision media, we just wouldn’t find out until much later. This indicated that the faulty manufacturing process began when the format was born. Laser rot caused a lot of fans of the format a lot of grief when the format least needed such a pothole. This problem should have been addressed rapidly once found, but there were many discs that continued to be improperly manufactured even into the 90s after the problem was found. The defective manufacturing process was something the LaserVision consortium failed to address, which tarnished (ahem) the reputation of the LaserVision brand.

For the videophiles who had invested heavily in this format, nothing was worse than playing a disc that you know worked fine a few months ago only to find it now unplayable. It was not only disheartening, but it gave fans of the format pause to consider any future purchases.

Losing Steam

Not only were the average consumers turned off by the high prices of the players, consumers also didn’t see the benefit of owning a LaserDisc player because of its lack of recording capabilities and its lack of readily available rentals. Some videophiles and LaserDisc format advocates lost interest when they attempted to play a 3 year old disc only to find that it was unplayable. At this point, only true die-hards stayed with LaserDisc format even among the mounting disc problems and lack of marketing push.

The manufacturers never stepped up to offer replacement discs for laser rot, which they should have. The LaserVision consortium did nothing to entice new consumers into the format nor did they attempt to fix the manufacturing defect leading to laser rot. The only thing the manufacturers did is continue to churn out upgraded LaserDisc player models usually adding things that didn’t help LaserDisc format directly. Instead, they would add compatibility for media like CDV or 3″ CD formats or CD text. Features that did nothing to help LaserDisc, but were only added to help entice audiophiles into adding a LaserDisc player into their component audio system. This ploy didn’t work. Why? Because audiophiles were more interested in music selection over compatibility with video formats. What sold were the carousel CD players that would eventually hold up to 400 CDs. Though, the 5 CD changers were also wildly popular at the time.

Instead of investing the time and effort into making LaserDisc a better format, the manufacturers spent time adding unnecessary features to their players (and charging more money for them). Granted, the one feature that was added that was desperately needed was digital audio soundtracks. These would be the precursor to DVD. However, while they did add digital audio to LaserDisc by the early 90s, the video was firmly still analog. However, even digital audio on the LaserDisc didn’t kick sales up in any substantial way. This was primarily because 5.1 and 7.1 sound systems were still a ways off from becoming mainstream.

The 90s and 00s

While LaserDisc did continue through most of the 90s as the format that still produced the best NTSC picture quality and digital sound for some films, that wouldn’t last once the all digital DVD arrived in 1997. Once the DVD format arrived, LaserDisc’s days were numbered as a useful movie format. Though LaserDisc did survive into the early noughties, the last movie released in the US is ironically named End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger, released in 2002. It truly was the end of days for LaserDisc. Though, apparently LaserDiscs continued to be pressed in Japan and possibly for industrial use for some time after this date.

Failure to Market

The primary reason LaserDisc didn’t get the entrenched market share that it expected was primarily poor marketing. As the product never had a clearly defined reason to exist or at least one that consumers could understand, it was never readily adopted. Then VHS came along giving even less reason to adopt the format.

Most consumers had no need for the quality provided by a LaserDisc. In fact, it was plainly obvious that VHS quality was entirely sufficient to watch a movie. I’d say that this ideal still holds true today. Even though there are 4K TVs and UltraHD 4K films being sold on disc, DVDs are still the most common format for purchase and rental. A format first released in 1997. Even Redbox hasn’t yet adopted rentals of UltraHD 4K Blu-ray discs. Though Redbox does rent 1080p Blu-ray discs, they still warn you that you’re renting a Blu-ray. It’s clear, the 480p DVD is going to die a very slow death. It also says that consumers really don’t care about a high quality picture. Instead, they just want to watch the film. Considering that DVD quality is only slightly better than a LaserDisc at a time when UltraHD 4K is available, that shows that most consumers don’t care about picture quality.

This is the key piece of information that the LaserVision consortium failed to understand in the early 80s. The video quality coming out of a LaserDisc was its only real selling point. That didn’t matter to most consumers. Having to run all over town to find the discs, deal with laser rot, having to flip the discs in the middle of the film and lack of video titles available (compared to VHS), these were not worth the hassle by most consumers. It’s far simpler to run out and buy a VHS tape recorder and rent movies from one of many different rental stores, some open very late. Keep in mind that VHS rentals were far less expensive than buying a LaserDisc.

In many cases, parents found an alternative babysitter in the VHS player. With LaserDisc and rough handling by kids, parents would end up purchasing replacement discs a whole lot more frequently than a VHS tape. Scratched discs happen simply by setting them down on a coffee table. With VHS, they’re pretty rugged. Even a kid handling a VHS tape isn’t likely to damage either the tape or the unit. Though, shoving food into the VHS slot wasn’t unheard of by the children of some parents. Parents could buy (or rent) a kids flick and the kids would be entertained for hours.

VHS tape recorder

Here is what a lot of people claim to be the reason for the death of the LaserDisc. Though, LaserDisc never really died… at least, not until 2002. The one reason most commonly cited was that the LaserDisc couldn’t record. No, you could not record onto a LaserDisc. It had no recordable media version available nor was there a recorder available. However, this perception was due to failure of marketing. LaserDisc wasn’t intended to be a recorder. It was intended to provide movies at reasonable prices. However, it failed to take into consideration the rental market… a market that wasn’t in existence in 1978, but soon appeared once VHS took off. It was a market that LaserDisc manufacturers couldn’t foresee and had no Plan-B ready to combat this turn of events.

However, there was no reason why you couldn’t own both a VHS recorder and a LaserDisc player. Some people did. Though together, these two units were fairly costly. Since most households only needed (and could only afford) one video type player, the VHS tape recorder won out. It not only had the huge rental infrastructure for movies, it was also capable of time shifting over the air programming. This multi-function capability of the VHS recorder lead many people to the stores to buy one. So, yes, not being able to record did hurt the LaserDisc image, but it wasn’t the reason for its death.

Stores and Availability

Around 1984-1986, VHS tape recorders were widely available from a vast array of retailers including discount stores like Target, Kmart and Sears. You could also find VHS recorders at Radio Shack and Federated and in the electronics section of Service Merchandise, JC Penney, Montgomery Wards, Foley’s and many other specialty and department stores.

You could also buy VHS units from mail order houses like J&R Music World who wrote in 1985, “We occasionally advertise a barebones model at $169… But prices have fallen significantly–15 percent in the past six months alone–and now a wide selection sells for $200 to $400.”. That’s a far cry from the $600-900 that a LaserDisc player may cost. Not only were VHS recorders and players available practically at every major department store, stores typically carried several models from which to choose. This meant you had a wide selection of VHS recorders at differing price points. While in the very early 80s VHS recorders were around $1000, the prices for VHS recorders had substantially dropped by 1985 helping fuel not only market saturation for VHS, but also the rental market.

Unlike VHS, LaserDisc never received much market traction because the LD players failed on two primary fronts:

1. They were way too pricey. The prices needed to drastically drop just like VHS machines. Instead of hovering at around the $600 mark, they needed to drop to the $150-$200 range. They never did.

2. They were difficult to find in stores. While VHS machines were available practically everywhere, even drug stores, LaserDisc players could only be found in specialty electronics stores. They could be found in the likes of Federated, Pacific Stereo and other local higher end component based electronics stores. Typically, you’d find them at stores that carried turntables, speakers and audio amplifier / receivers. While Sears may have carried Magnavox LD players for a short time, they quickly got out of that business and moved towards VHS recorders.

Because the manufacturers of LD players failed to get the players into the discount stores and they failed to price the players down to compete with those the $200-$400 VHS units, LaserDisc could gain little mass consumer traction. On top of this, the confusion over CED and LaserDisc (and even VHS) left those who were interested in disc based video in a quandary. Which to choose? CED or LaserDisc? Because CED discs and players were slightly less expensive (and inferior quality) than LaserDisc, many who might have bought LaserDisc bought into CED. This reduced LaserDisc saturation even further.

It wasn’t the videophiles who were buying into CED either. It was consumers who wanted disc media, but who also didn’t want to pay LaserDisc prices. Though, the mass consumer market went almost lock-stock-and-barrel to VHS because of what VHS offered (lower price, better selection of movies, rentals everywhere and recording capabilities).

Why Did LaserDisc Fail?

LaserDisc’s failure to gain traction was a combination of market factors including lack of marketing, poor quality media, high hardware prices, unreliable players, CED confusion, and the VHS rental market, but this was just the beginning of its downfall. At the tail end, even though LaserDisc did attempt a high definition analog format through Japan’s Hi-Vision spec using MUSE encoding, even that couldn’t withstand the birth of the DVD.

If the LaserVision consortium had had more vision to continue to innovate in the LaserDisc video space rather than trying to make a LaserDisc player an audio component, the format would have ultimately sold better. How much better? No one really knows. If the consortium had embraced MPEG and made a move towards an all digital format in the 90s, this change might have solidified LaserDisc as a comeback format which could have supported 1080p HDTV. Though there was a digital LaserDisc format called CDV and also Japan’s Hi-Vision HD format, these never gained any traction because the LaserVision consortium failed to embrace them. Hi-Vision was never properly introduced into the US or Europe and remained primarily a Japanese innovation sold primarily in Japan.

Instead, the introduction of DVD is pretty much solidified the death of what was left of LaserDisc as a useful movie storage, rental and playback medium. Though, the LaserDisc media releases would continue to limp along until 2002 with the last LaserDisc player models released sometime in 2009.

What would kill the LaserDisc format? LaserDisc would ultimately die because of 1080p 16:9 flat screen HDTVs, which the LaserDisc format didn’t properly support (other than composite low res or the short lived Hi-Vision format which was problematic). Ultimately, no one wants to watch 480i 4:3 ratio pan-and-scan analog movies via composite inputs on a brand new 16:9 1080p widescreen TV. Yes, some anamorphic widescreen films came to exist on LaserDisc, but that still utilized a 480i resolution which further degraded the picture by widening the image. Of course, you can still find LaserDisc players and discs for purchase if you really want them.

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