MCA DiscoVision

The Videophile
June/July 1981

The Videodisc Question
by Marcus F. Wielage

LaserVision, CED, VHD. All of these are words none of us had heard back in 1976, when our first issue appeared. We've followed the few victories and the many "agonies of defeat" endured by the laser optical system over the past couple of years, from our first in-depth examination of the Magnavox Model 8000 player in #18 to our condemnation of DiscoVision Associates' poor disc pressings over a year ago in #23. Now, in 1981, we're at the threshold of what's being touted as the biggest revolution in the history of the consumer electronics business, far and above more gigantic than the early color TV standards battle and the stereo-FM arguments of the '50's, and there's little doubt that the biggest casualty in this billion-dollar war will almost certainly be the consumer.

To give our readers a better understanding of the problems surrounding The VideoDisc Question, we should briefly go back and review the progress (or lack thereof) in this fledgling industry for the past few years. The laser optical format, now going under the generic trademark "LaserVision," first began as MCA Disco-Vision in 1972, developed by the corporation that owns Universal Studios in an attempt to perfect a way of economically selling their feature films to the consumer market. MCA's early prototypes included a unique optical disc changer, not unlike a standard phonograph, with a clear plastic lid into which up to a half-dozen flexible discs could be placed for playback. Not long after, the Dutch electronics conglomerate N.V. Philips came out with the "VLP" (video long play) system, another videodisc concept using a very similar laser/optical approach, but with several minor differences such as playing the discs from the inside groove to the outer grooves, and relying on a slightly different pickup design and rigid disc pressings.

After a year or two of negotiating, Philips and MCA resolved all their differences in September of 1974 and pooled their considerable resources towards developing a compatible videodisc system, each compromising their own systems slightly to allow for complete interchangeability. Yet it wasn't until four years later that the first few players began to roll off Philips' assembly line in Holland, with just a few discs being produced by MCA's Carson, California pressing plant. As documented in this and many other electronics publications, those first players and discs had more than their fair share of technical bugs, mostly concerning the problematic and complex laser assembly and the fact that a large number of defective videodiscs slipped through their QC inspectors.

Meanwhile, MCA, always anxious to keep their options open and spread as widely as possible, secured a partnership with Pioneer in Japan to supply them with an industrial optical player (the PR-7820) as part of their newly formed Universal/Pioneer division. We understand from several sources that Philips was somewhat taken aback by this competitive step and made overtures towards Sony, with whom they later signed an agreement in order to exchange patents on a variety of products, specifically including the optical disc. Needless to say, this infuriated MCA, since they were (and still are) in the process of fighting a major legal battle with Sony over the issue of off-air video recording.

So, these internal struggles continued. Back in California, we were told by one highly placed source that many of DiscoVision's early pressing problems were due to the very stringent demands on technical accuracy in disc replication, which in turn required an extremely carefully adjusted laser assembly in the player for problem-free playback. After rejecting fully 2/3 of their output as being defective, MCA DiscoVision realized a need to "soften" their standards slightly, which would allow them a little more margin for error with their pressings. This would, in turn, greatly help them increase their disc output, with fewer overall rejects. Unfortunately, because of the rift between MCA and Philips, communication between the two firms wasn't exactly operating at peak efficiency and Philips didn't learn of these optical disc standard modifications until almost a year later. As a result, thousands of Philips-made Magnavision players were not completely compatible with these new "relaxed-standard" discs. On the other hand, because of MCA's close relationship with Pioneer, the latter firm's industrial and consumer LaserVision players were designed from the start to operate with a larger tolerance for disc problems. As of this year, however, all Magnavox players have been (or should have been) modified to handle these discs with a new, improved laser assembly, according to a company spokesman.

Meanwhile, the optical disc defects continued. The key problem here seems to be the fact that each disc is assembled from two separate halves, thus adding significantly to the possibility that either one or both sides will have a problem. In addition, the troublesome "CLV" (extended play) discs proved to be much harder to produce than the R&D engineers first envisioned. Realizing that their expertise lay more in the area of entertainment than in manufacturing, MCA turned to business giant IBM to help them get the bugs out of their pressing plant. This new MCA/IBM partnership was called DiscoVision Associates ("DVA" for short) and most of their efforts over the past two years has been toward perfecting the 1-hour-per-side CLV discs. The 30-minute CAV discs require twice the expense in materials, often as many as five sides of three discs for a two-hour feature film. This was the main reason for their 50% price hike two years ago.

Most, if not all, of the CLV discs we've seen up to this point have been abysmal-visibly inferior to the one-hour discs from RCA and JVC with their competitive systems, as a matter of fact-but DVA spokesmen insist that they have finally conquered almost all of their initial problems and have lowered their defect rate substantially. We have learned through an informed source that DVA is still unable to press CLV discs longer than 55:00 minutes, despite earlier claims that the system can handle up to 60:00 minutes. A spokesman for Pioneer confirms this fact, though he revealed that their own pressing plant in Japan has been able to successfully reach the magic one-hour mark with a number of test-pressings.

However, all of the LaserVision system's highly-touted features of still-frame, slow-motion, and random-frame access are kaput with these CLV discs, making them roughly equivalent, operationally, to RCA's "CED" system. It's expected that once a major breakthrough occurs with digital frame-store technology, future optical players may be able to provide at least a still-frame with CLV discs, though this isn't expected to happen for at least five years.

As of this writing, Philips will be selling LaserVision players through their Magnavox and newly acquired Philco and Sylvania sub-divisions. Pioneer already manufactures two players, the industrial unit and the consumer VP-1000H (reviewed in issue #30). Advent is the only other U.S. firm definitely known to be coming out with a LaserVision player (apparently identical to the Pioneer), although Fisher has displayed a Sanyo-built optical prototype at several trade shows. Many Japanese firms, including Kenwood and Sony, all have licenses to produce optical disc players, but all of them are fence-sitting for the present time.

Sony has the real "wild card" in the videodisc war, since they've already unveiled their industrial LaserVision player, which plays only 30 minute CAV discs, and recently opened an optical disc pressing plant in Japan. Sony chairman Akio Morita has insisted that they don't feel the videodisc is a viable concept just yet, and has announced plans to stick with videotape for the time being.

Next, we have RCA. RCA's videodisc plans have been under development for at least as long as MCA's, since the early '70's, although their basic system has undergone a number of changes since the initial demonstrations in 1975. RCA's engineers have been working toward perfecting the simplest videodisc system possible, both in terms of manufacturing as well as consumer operation, and there's no question that they've achieved this goal with their current SFT-100 player and caddy-enclosed videodiscs (reviewed in issue #30).

RCA's amazing CED technical statistics read almost like an episode of That's Incredible. For example: their stylus is so small ("how small is it?") that 50 of them would fit on the edge of a dollar bill. The stylus pressure against the videodisc is a mere .065 grams-less than 1/20 the weight of even the best audio styli and tone arms. And the CED grooves are incredibly dense-more than 10,000 to the inch-making audio disc grooves look like the Grand Canyon by comparison.

The only problem with CED, or should we say, the main problem, is that its lifespan is significantly less than the other consumer videodisc and videotape systems. However, RCA's engineers are correct in pointing out that their system approximately equals the durability of standard audio discs, which we understand is roughly 1000 hours for the stylus and 100 plays for the disc. Most of us will admit that there are very, very few tapes in our collections that we've played even 50 times, let alone 100, so it's apparent that this wear factor might not be very important as far as lifespan goes. On the other hand, for video quality, there's little doubt that CED discs will tend to look worse and worse over the years, the more they're played. Even when brand new, their overall quality has been judged by our technical staff to closely resemble that of comparable VHS LP/4-hour recordings mediocre, at best.

Despite this somewhat mediocre picture quality, we have to agree with a statement found in RCA's excellent software catalogue: "Programs on RCA SelectaVision Videodiscs are electronically processed and enhanced for reproduction through your home television receiver from the best source elements supplied by program licensors. Processing may include color correction, noise reduction, enhanced monaural TV sound, and other steps in conversion to the videodisc medium." Aside from the poor audio quality discussed in our review last issue, I have to agree that RCA's film transfers are among the very best I've ever seen, judging by the demos at trade shows and press conferences. This may be the single greatest feature of the CED system: they've got the best titles and best transfers of any video format currently available, including Beta and VHS.

As to features, the CED system doesn't have a great deal to offer at present. RCA has made the decision to offer their discs only with mono sound at present, though they've remained silent as to why stereo-compatible discs couldn't be made available now to preclude an eventual mono/stereo inventory battle similar to the audio war of the early 60's. In addition, slow-motion and true freeze-frame is extremely difficult to obtain with the CED system, again requiring the complex frame-storage circuits discussed earlier. It's doubtful that we'll be seeing these features for at least four or five years, though updated deluxe players with variable search speeds and "pseudo-still-frame" (four endlessly repeated frames) will be available from several Japanese manufacturers later this year, and from RCA in 1982.

The list of CED manufactures reads almost like a "Who's Who" of the U.S. electronics industry. Although Zenith had originally been involved with Philips and the laser optical system, they abandoned their efforts early in the game, later attempting to come up with their own videodisc format with the French firm Thomson-CSF. After suffering through the dominance of VHS in the consumer video market for four years, Zenith turned to their arch-rival RCA, realizing the importance of the latter firm's keen marketing power. Once they were convinced that the CED format would become the best-selling disc system in our country, Zenith embraced it with open arms in 1979. After RCA and Zenith's startling announcement (roughly akin to Ford and General Motors agreeing to make identical cars), other firms were quick to jump on the CED bandwagon. Thus far, Hitachi, Sanyo and Toshiba have announced plans to manufacture CED-compatible players, which will be sold under their own brand names as well as those of several other smaller firms. Even major department stores are signing up with CED, with Sears, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward joining forces for the first time on their decision to sell the same type of disc system.

Both CBS and RCA are now gearing up their pressing plants for producing CED discs this year, though most of CBS' efforts are still in the formative stages. It's known that RCA is very concerned over the large number of CED players about to be released by the three Japanese licensees because of the relatively small number of discs their pressing plant is capable of manufacturing in 1981-less than 200 titles by the end of the year, and about 2,000,000 total RCA discs scheduled for release. As a result, there will most likely be a steady drought of CED titles throughout 1981 not unlike the current shortage of DiscoVision discs. It's expected that as more pressing plants open up, the situation will improve by this time next year.

Other firms that have become licensed for manufacturing CED players include Clarion, NEC and Sharp in Japan, though for the immediate future they'll most likely be involved primarily in manufacturing these players for sale to other firms on an OEM basis rather than under their own names. In addition, two major British consumer audio companies, BSR and Plessey/Garrard, are CED licensees, though neither has yet announced the date by which their players will be available.

Like RCA's player, VHD uses a stylus to "read" differences in capacitance, or stored electrical charges in the surface of a conductive disc, a primary distinction being that the VHD stylus glides smoothly across the surface of the disc rather than digging into a groove, resulting in much less wear and tear. Also, JVC had the exceptional foresight to design their system from the start with 2-hour playing time and multiple special effects capability, including still-frame, random-frame access and slow-motion, thus combining the playing time of CED with the features of LaserVision. I should add here that, although most demonstrations of VHD have provided only simulations of still-frame playback, JVC has promised that their system is capable of acceptable still-framing and slow-motion approximately equal in quality to the LaserVision system.

Because of the intensely close camaraderie of Japanese firms in regard to favoring their own efforts over those of other countries, it's generally assumed that VHD is fast becoming the de facto disc standard of Japan. So far, all of Matsushita's subsidiaries, including JVC, National/Panasonic, and Quasar, have announced plans to sell VHD players both in Japan and the U.S., with Technics expected to offer an AHD player as well. Akai, Mitsubishi/MGA, NEC, Sanyo, Sharp. Toshiba and Yamaha have also indicated their intent to release VHD players in Japan, though only Yamaha is as confident of the system's potential for success in the U.S. The only other firm that will be offering VHD in America is General Electric, which occupies a small but comparatively important share of the market in TV sales.

While VHD's programming executives are making great progress toward enlarging their small library of titles, their selection currently remains the smallest of any video disc format. So far, they've signed up non-exclusive agreements with Columbia Pictures, Paramount, and Thorn/EMI, which includes EMI's Capitol Records subsidiary-a potentially major source of music programming for videodisc release. Other Hollywood studios seem interested in making similar non-exclusive agreements with as many tape and disc formats as possible, if only to help weigh the odds in their favor on selling as many copies of their movies as possible. So, it's expected that VHD's arsenal will increase dramatically in the near future. Still, VHD has the major stumbling block of overcoming the massive publicity campaigns now being generated by the LaserVision and CED camps in the U.S., thus making it the real dark horse in the videodisc race.

Conclusion: Looking over the dozens of magazine articles and press releases presently stuffed in my file cabinets and strewn all over my office, I'm struck by the amazing number of "Odd Couple" partnerships in the videodisc game: Zenith and RCA ... MCA and Sony (indirectly, anyway) NBC and CBS ... and Sears, Penny's and Ward's. If you're a little confused after reading the past few pages on this megabuck marketing struggle, just think about the poor video dealer who has to decide just how many of these formats he can afford to stock. And let's not forget the poor record store owners and video software companies who will probably end up carrying dozens of titles in five separate formats-Beta, VHS, LaserVision CED and VHD! (And six, once the stereo CED discs are released.)

Unlike every single other magazine in this country. we're going to do our very best to answer the bottom-line question that has no doubt plagued all of you for the past few months: "Just which videodisc system should I buy?" We've already gone on record in several past issues as having stated that the LaserVision system has demonstrated the greatest potential in terms of one day being able to provide the highest quality video and audio playback source available at a reasonable price for the consumer. However-and this is a BIG however-the technology behind the LaserVision system has yet to be perfected to the degree of reliability that we can live with and accept at the present time, although we have every hope that it can be perfected over the next five years, provided they can survive in the market that long.

As a side note. We have to disagree strongly with Magnavox's idiotic and laughable series of extremely expensive multi-page full-color ads now running in many major national magazines touting their disc player as "Gourmet Video, for people who know and love video." Well, there ain't nobody who knows and loves video more than us, and we'll be damned if we believe all the bugs are worked out of the LaserVision system yet. We also take extreme exception to the claim that their player's picture quality is " ... bound to please even the most discriminating video gourmet." which is enough to cause the bile to rush to our throats. Perhaps if Magnavox were to take some of the millions of dollars they're currently squandering on these Gourmet ads and pour them into a little more research and development, to say nothing of quality control, their players and discs might improve and we'd change our tune.

In the opinion of most marketing experts, RCA's CED system will almost unquestionably be the number one videodisc format for the U.S., due mostly to the unbeatable combined marketing power of RCA, Zenith, CBS, and the other firms, which gives them well over 60% of the market-an incredible coup. Regardless of our own feelings, we're the first to admit that, like it or not. we videophiles have to live in the real world, and there's no doubt in our minds, too, that RCA's CED system will indeed be the #1 best-selling disc format in this country. [Since this article was written, sales reports on the RCA disc player have been so mixed as to give rise to speculation that the CED disc, indeed the video disc concept, may be in trouble. -Ed]

Perhaps the biggest drawback with the CED system is that its concept and design represent the limit of capacitance technology, meaning that what we have today is probably the best the system will ever achieve, at least for the foreseeable future. One experienced video engineer explained it this way: "It's as if RCA started with an inferior system and worked back-wards." That may well be the optical system's greatest advantage. Most of its current capabilities only scrape the surface of the performance the laser system is capable of achieving. We hope that this means that the optical system can only improve as the years go on and have every hope for it, despite the severe present-day drawbacks mentioned before.

VHD remains our own personal favorite, despite its present dark horse standing. JVC's engineers have promised that their pressing plants are capable of producing VHD discs with fewer defects than the LaserVision system, yet still providing roughly equivalent picture quality and features at a lower cost. But again, VHD may be arriving too late to make much of a dent in the U.S. market. Perhaps the most important spot to watch in the VideoDisc Sweepstakes will be the #2 position, to be fought over between VHD and the optical camp. If the latter can't solve their quality problems and line up a lot more manufacturers, VHD may all but destroy them over the next couple of years.

But enough digressing. Our final opinion: If you're looking for the best quality, most reliable video format, with the widest selection of titles available and the most special-effects features, we recommend that you stick with videotape (your choice of Beta or VHS) for the immediate future and wait until the disc market has settled down. We're sorry to have to resort to such a cop-out answer, but for once, we agree with Sony's marketing executives in their belief that the videodisc concept does not currently represent a significantly better or more economical alternative to tape, except in prerecorded programming. Tape's inherent recording capability gives it a hell of an advantage over any of the three disc systems, and believe it or not, we're convinced that full-speed Beta and VHS recordings are capable of providing superior overall audio and video quality to the average videodisc pressings we've seen. However, this won't stop some of us from owning one of each system, simply because we're (ahem) "video gourmets who know and love video," to coin a phrase. And that may well be the best answer: if you can afford it, buy all three. If you can't, stick with tape for the meantime. Incidentally, this brings up an unusual side-light of the whole software market-the fact that most prerecorded videotapes look better, overall, than comparable videodiscs, which is the exact opposite of the audio market. Hopefully, this will prove to be only a temporary problem. Still, it's very doubtful that prerecorded tape prices will ever drop down to the cost of videodisc - though off-air taping is still cheaper than both.

Needless to say, we'll be waiting and watching the coming videodisc battle with as much interest and anticipation as the rest of you, and will continue to keep you abreast of any changes and developments as the months go by. But don't be surprised if, in our next videodisc update, we reiterate the same opinions all over again.

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