On 22 March, 1981, RCA introduced a brand new but curiously retro analog video format, the SelectaVision CED VideoDisc system. Today the CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) is all but forgotten but even at its most popular it wasn’t well-known and was much widely-adopted than contemporaneous video formats like Betamax, VHS, and LaserDiscs.
CED collection, Ron Treverton of Brantford, Canada (source: Personal Computer Museum)
In early 1981, shortly before the VideoDisc (as it was “commonly” known) hit the shelves of roughly 5,000 dealers across the USA, the first stainless steel, gull-wing doored DeLorean DMC-12 automobile rolled off of an assembly line in Northern Ireland whilst nearby, in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, Bobby Sands embarked on what would soon prove to be a fatal hunger strike. Meanwhile in America, I was entertained by Joel Schumacher‘s film, The Incredible Shrinking Woman… a film which would ultimately be released on LD, VHS, and (in edited form) on DVD-R — but never VideoDisc.
Although doubtfully part of the plan, with the release of VideoDiscs RCA seemed to inadvertently anticipate the vinyl revival of the future by rejecting the use of lasers to read information (technology used by LDs and Compact Discs, which would be released commercially the following year) in favor of a stylus — a technology developed in the 1870s to play wax cylinders. The result was a format that was neither recordable (unlike magnetic tape formats) nor possessing of superior image quality (unlike LaserDiscs).
The reason the CED was so anachronistic was because the technology was originally conceived seventeen years earlier, in 1964. Back then, it represented in a significant increase in the recording density of vinyl LPs and was therefore a not insignificant technological advance. Unfortunately for the product’s viability, behind-the-scenes bickering and other obstacles held up its release for the next decade and a half.
By the time of the CED’s release, the home video consumer already had several recordable analog videocassette options (e.g. U-matic, Cartrivision, Betamax, and VHS) and the playback-only but higher end LaserDisc from DiscoVision to choose from. The only real advantage of CEDs offered were their relative inexpensiveness — both to produce and purchase.
Originally there were only about fifty titles available on VideoDisc. By the time of the format’s demise that number had grown to about 1,700 — a really small number for all but the least-discriminating film-lover. With the limited selection and few superiorities over its rival formats, it’s almost inconceivable that any well-informed consumer would adopt the technology unless they were a magpie (the discs are shiny) or that even less-intelligent species, the brand loyalist. I doubt it but perhaps dancing twins or a 45 minute spiel from a friendly salesperson could change the methaqualone-addled mind.
Sales of the “brand new, you’re retro” format were bad from the get go. In
1986, after having lost a reported $600 million on the VideoDisc, RCA finally performed a mercy killing on the format.
Today when VideoDiscs are encountered, it’s usually at thrift stores (hello Goodwill), yard sales, and occasionally on Amoeba Hollywood‘s mezzanine. That’s where I first saw one — although I didn’t know what it was. Artist Wayne Shellabarger had to educate me. If you don’t see any VideoDiscs at Amoeba, it may because there are none in stock. However, ask at the information counter and you may be pleasantly surprised as they’ve been known not to make it to the sales floor.
19 April is Record Store Day and 7 September is Cassette Store Day but as far as I know, there’s neither a holiday for videodisc stores nor has there ever been such a thing as a videodisc store. VideoDiscs are honored online with an appropriately retro-looking website, CED Magic. It’s actually quite a thorough and loving look at the sometimes-maligned and even more often- forgotten video format. Happy hunting!