Anyone over 30 remembers a time when it was impossible to imagine home video without physical media. But anyone over 50 remembers a time when it was difficult to choose which kind of media to bet on. Just as the “computer zoo” of the early 1980s forced home-computing enthusiasts to choose between Apple, IBM, Commodore, Texas Instruments, and a host of other brands, each with its own technological specifications, the market for home-video hardware presented several different alternatives. You’ve heard of Sony’s Betamax, for example, which has been a punchline ever since it lost out to JVC’s VHS. But that was just the realm of video tape; have you ever watched a movie on a vinyl record?
Four decades ago, it was difficult for most consumers to imagine home video at all. “Get records that let you have John Travolta dancing on your floor, Gene Hackman driving though your living room, the Godfather staying at your house,” booms the narrator of the television commercial above.
How, you ask? By purchasing a SelectaVision player and compatible video discs, which allow you to “see the entertainment you really want, when you want, uninterrupted.” In our age of streaming-on-demand this sounds like a laughably pedestrian claim, but at the time it represented the culmination of seventeen years and $600 million of intensive research and development at the Radio Company of America, better known as RCA.
Radio, and even more so its successor television, made RCA an enormous (and enormously profitable) conglomerate in the first half of the twentieth century. By the 1960s, it commanded the resources to work seriously on such projects as a vinyl record that could contain not just music, but full motion pictures in color and stereo. This turned out to be even harder than it sounded: after numerous delays, RCA could only bring SelectaVision to market in the spring of 1981, four years after the internal target. By that time, after the company had been commissioning content for the better part of a decade (D. A. Pennebaker shot David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust concert in 1973 on commission from RCA, who’d intended to make a SelectaVision disc out of it), the format faced competition from not just VHS and Betamax but the cutting-edge LaserDisc as well.
Nevertheless, the SelectaVision’s ultra-densely encoded vinyl video discs — officially known as capacitance electronic discs, or CEDs — were, in their way, marvels of engineering. You can take a deep dive into exactly what makes the system so impressive, which involves not just a breakdown of its components but a complete retelling of the history of RCA, though the five-part Technology Connections miniseries at the top of the post. True completists can also watch RCA’s video tour of its SelectaVision production facilities, as well as its live dealer-introduction broadcast hosted by Tom Brokaw and featuring a Broadway-style musical number. SelectaVision was also rolled out in the United Kingdom in 1983, thus qualifying for a hands-on examination by British retro-tech Youtuber Techmoan.
SelectaVision lasted just three years. Its failure was perhaps overdetermined, and not just by the bad timing resulting from its troubled development. In the early 1980s, the idea of buying pre-recorded video media lacked the immediate appeal of “time-shifting” television, which had become possible only with video tape. Nor did RCA, whose marketing centered on the possibility of building a permanent home-video library in the manner of one’s music library, foresee the possibility of rental. And though CEDs were ultimately made functional, they remained cumbersome, able to hold just one hour of video per side and notoriously subject to jitters even on the first play. Yet as RCA’s ad campaigns emphasized, there really was a “magic” in being able to watch the movies you wanted at home, whenever you wanted to. In that sense, at least, we now live in a magical world indeed.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.