advertisement
advertisement
  • 09.21.15

How Cartrivision’s 1972 VCR Foresaw–And Forfeited–The Time-Shifted Future

Before VHS vs. Betamax, a Silicon Valley startup brought the VCR and home-movie rentals and purchases to Americans. And it failed big time.

How Cartrivision’s 1972 VCR Foresaw–And Forfeited–The Time-Shifted Future
[Photo: Flickr user John]

“I offer you and your family immediate access to TV programs, your choice of feature-length films, educational and cultural materials, and your own home movies. You can see and hear them in the privacy of your living room any time you desire, without driving anywhere, without fighting crowds, without commercials or other interruptions. I can do this because I’m a time machine, a very special sort of time machine.”

advertisement

Who’s talking? The iPad in 2010? YouTube in 2005? TiVo in 1999? To determine the identity of this anthropomorphized narrator, you’ll have to go back a little further. To 1972.

Three years before Sony’s Betamax, more than a decade before Blockbuster, and 25 years before Netflix offered rented movies by mail, a team based in San Jose, California, ushered Americans into the era of time-shifting and on-demand video with the first consumer videotape recorder available in the U.S. Cartridge Television’s Cartrivision could record and play back color-TV programs, play prerecorded videos, act as a closed-circuit security camera, and even play back home movies recorded on its companion video camera. It was an ambitious, versatile machine. Within 13 months, it flopped.

A Cartrivision rental cartridgePhoto: via RetroThing

Cartivision’s cartridges–8-inch plastic squares–were inserted into a bottom-hinged compartment that closed into a color-TV console with the thunk of a car door. Like the more professionally oriented Sony U-Matic system that preceded it, Cartrivision could fast-forward and rewind tapes. It also had a simple wind-down timer for scheduling recordings. While it did not offer the ability to choose a specific time and date like later VCRs, it was simple to use.

In addition to offering reusable blank tapes starting at $15 for a 15-minute cartridge, Cartrivision was also early to recognize the value of video content and offered a catalog of tape cartridges to buy or rent. Just as with later VCRs, the selection ranged from wholesome family entertainment (Roger Ramjet cartoons) to X-rated fare (Private Duty Nurses). (“This will put pornography back in the home where it belongs,” said an unnamed employee of Hornhill and Weeks-Hemphill, a Cartrivision investor, in a 1973 Washington Post article.)

Most of the 100 to 200 titles available for purchase–prices ranged from $13 to $40–were instructional or cultural programs, while the Hollywood releases were generally available only for rental, at $3 to $6 a pop. The latter included such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. Strangelove, and High Noon. That the company was able to offer Hollywood releases at all was particularly impressive, given the movie industry’s antipathy towards home video in the 1970s, a sentiment that led to the famous “Betamax case” of Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

A family enjoys its Cartrivision system in 1972.

Just as today’s iTunes Store enforces time limits on digital movie rental via digital-rights management technology, Cartrivision employed analog-rights management: rented tapes, offered in red casings, could be rewound only with equipment available at retailers. That ensured that a consumer could only watch a movie once.

advertisement

Integrated with color TV, Cartrivision could record and play back color programming. However, it offered a monochrome “instant replay” video camera and further optional microphone that could be used to make home movies. Even though the camera, tapes, and home-TV player all came from one company, the video cartridges couldn’t be moved from the camera to the TV console, a la the VHS-C tapes that would come come a decade later. Instead, playing back the recordings required hooking up cables to jacks on the Cartrivision side of the TV.

Cartrivision Everywhere

Rather than sell its system directly under its own brand, Cartrivision attracted a number of prominent TV and retailer brands, including Admiral, Emerson, Teledyne Packard Bell, Macy’s, Montgomery Ward, and Sears. Then, as now, there was a fair amount of product relabeling. The Montgomery Ward unit, for instance, used an Admiral chassis.

Teledyne Packard Bell Cartrivision booklet cover

Before the format war between the Betamax and VHS formats, another rivalry nearly ensued. While Cartrivision was the first videotape recorder made available in the U.S., it had contemporary competition of sorts in the confusingly named VCR–a specific format rather than the generic category name–such as the Philips N1500, which saw marginally more success in Europe.

Like Cartrivision, the Philips device was expensive for its time (£600, or about $11,700 in today’s dollars), but had a number of advantages, foreshadowing later videotape recorders. It was available as a standalone unit and offered better video quality on its hour-long videocassettes. It also had a real digital timer and the ability to record shows on a channel that wasn’t being watched via its own tuner, which allowed the TV to be turned off during recording. Its fast-forward and rewind buttons used standard piano-style keys and didn’t require switching into a separate mode as Cartrivision did.

A commercial for the Philips N1500 shows its push-button controls.

Philips looked into bringing the device to the U.S. in 1977, but encountered technical difficulties resulting from differences between the American NTSC broadcast standard and the European PAL standard. And by that time, the company was looking to VHS as the future of videotape.

With the U.S. market to itself, Cartrivision pushed hard on marketing the wonder of its machine. The Hollywood spotlight even briefly shined on it in an episode of What’s My Line? in which the panelists had to guess that the contents of a Cartrivision cartridge contained the opening of the very program they were on. (It took panelist Henry Morgan less than a minute to do so.)

advertisement

Cartrivision indulged the medium it served with its advertising and instructional materials, too. Indeed, save for period fashions, background music straight out of a Brady Bunch episode, and gender stereotypes (“While you’re at the meeting, your wife simply inserts a blank cartridge, presses the record button, turns the selector switch, and records the program in full color.”), its promo videos bring to mind pitches that accompany crowdfunding campaigns. The company was not shy about using effusive language for its “experience center,” with the voice of the anthropomorphized Cartrivision noting, “I can bring you whatever you want to see, whenever you want to see it.”

The Demise

Alas, for all its pioneering, Cartrivision attracted a very small audience and failed spectacularly over the course of a little more than a year. The product suffered from a range of problems. First among these was price. In 1972, even standard color TVs were still pricey: only about half of American homes had one. The mass market was loath to cough up Cartrivision’s asking price of $1,600 (about $9,100 in today’s dollars).

Cartrivision also had its user experience failings. Here’s how one enthusiast site describes its operation:

[T]o go into fast forward, you press down the FF button and turn the function selector knob to the rewind position. Kind of like going into record mode. (Press & hold record button, turn selector to play.) This takes two hands and even then is cumbersome to say the least. Notice that the positioning of the controls is near the height of most people’s ankles! Behind the smoked cover . . . are two additional mode switches and the mechanical sleep timer. The logic of these switches is bewildering in its (unnecessary) complexity.

The Cartrivision’s picture was fuzzy: The product recorded only every third video frame, in an early form of analog compression. And in a fit of either poor luck or poor planning, the company stored many of its cartridges in a warehouse so humid that many of the tapes were destroyed. Some also claim that advance pronouncements from RCA about its forthcoming SelectaVision MagTape VCR, which never shipped, harmed Cartrivision. In 1973, Avco, the company that manufactured Cartrivision, pulled out, and founder Frank Stanton was forced to lay off staff and slash work on projects such as a standalone version of the product.

But like today’s startup entrepreneurs, the company’s staff were true believers. A radio report on the closure of Cartrivision notes that employees came in the day after they were let go to keep the company going, perhaps in hopes of a salvation that never arrived.

Emerson’s Cartrivision TV

A Legacy of Sorts

In 1975, Sony shipped the first Betamax systems in Japan. It undercut the price of Cartrivision even at the premium Sony was able to charge. JVC followed with the even less expensive first VHS VCR the following year. Even if it had seen more early success, Cartrivision was doomed to be crushed in the looming war between these formats, both of which avoided some of its quirks.

advertisement
Cover of the Cartrivision rental tape catalog

The ultimate paradox of Cartrivision was that it looked like just another color TV of the era. Indeed, its invisibility contributed to challenges on the sales floor. The “I am Cartrivision” video acknowledges this by noting, “At first, you probably thought I was a color television set.” However, behind the scenes, the company was attempting to move mountains in a prototypical technology-entertainment ecosystem, bringing together licensed hardware (the TV manufacturers and cameras), content (the movies available to purchase and rent), services (the rental rewinding and catalogs), and distribution (the retailers).

It tried to do all this for a market that knew little about the benefits of home video recording and on-demand content. As its marketing materials proved, Cartrivision certainly had no shortage of vision. Unfortunately, it could not fast forward to a future where the cost and means of delivering it changed dramatically enough to enable mass adoption.


Many thanks to the labguysworld.com Cartrivision site and Luke Perry’s Cartrivision site for providing troves of historical information on Cartrivision and serving as key references for this story.

About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research and founder and editor of Backerjack, a site that tracks crowdfunded products. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

More

Video