When Movies Came on Vinyl: The Early-80s Engineering Marvel and Marketing Disaster That Was RCA’s SelectaVision

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Sto­ry of the Mini­Disc, Sony’s 1990s Audio For­mat That’s Gone But Not For­got­ten

A Cel­e­bra­tion of Retro Media: Vinyl, Cas­settes, VHS, and Polaroid Too

The Beau­ty of Degrad­ed Art: Why We Like Scratchy Vinyl, Grainy Film, Wob­bly VHS & Oth­er Ana­log-Media Imper­fec­tion

The Muse­um of Fail­ure: A New Swedish Muse­um Show­cas­es Harley-David­son Per­fume, Col­gate Beef Lasagne, Google Glass & Oth­er Failed Prod­ucts

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.