Assumed to be long dead by many and certainly so in a domestic setting, the end of the Sony Betamax tape format is nigh as Sony will officially end production of the tapes in March, 40 years after the product was introduced into the domestic market. Interestingly, Sony made its last Betamax video recorder in 2002 some 14 years hence. So please, be on notice that as of March 2016, brand new Betamax cassettes with model number EL-500B, 2L-500MHGB, 2L-750MHGB as well as the L-25CLP cleaning tape will no longer be available.
Sony first launched its Betamax products in 1975 as a magnetic tape based video format for consumers to record analogue television shows. The Betamax LV-1901 hit the market at a cost of $2,495, which equates to £5,500 in today’s money but for that you got not just the recorder but a (Trinitron) 19-inch colour TV all bundled up in a nice wooden case.
It wasn’t just the Betamax recorders that were expensive, so was the media with Beta cassettes each costing $35, which equated to £77 in today’s money. Thus faced with such a high price, consumers plumped for JVC’s Videostar instead, an early VHS format machine costing approximately half that of the competing Beta machine. Add this to a 30% saving on cassettes and VHS was clearly the commercial winner which in the first year of sales in the US, took 40 per cent of sales away from Sony with this rising to capture about 88 per cent of the home video market by 1987.
Even though the Betamax format was strongly initially supported by Toshiba and other electronics makers, the VHS format reigned supreme but there were two other significant factors other than price that skewed public preference against the Beta format. Certainly within the UK; firstly, Sony would not allow pornography to be sold on any pre-recorded tapes – what few there were, that is and secondly, that Thorn – EMI, manufacturers badge engineers of the VHS Ferguson Videostar (actually a JVC HR-3300) who also owned that faithful family electrical store Rumbelows ensured that wavering customers were assisted to make the choice of a VHS machine whether for rental or purchase!!
And so the scene was set, after a promising start, with Betamax popularity plateauing after some 50 million cassettes were shipped by Sony during 1984, they eventually gave up on Betamax as a domestic video format and quietly launched their own VHS machine in 1988.
However, this was not the end for Betamax totally for although this technically superior format was rejected by the domestic “Oh yeah baby, make it real good” market, it was certainly not rejected by the professional broadcast industry and it is in this arena that the Betacam and later the Digibeta formats had a firm foothold.
Betacam is the name given to the professional version of the Betamax system with "Betacam" colloquially yet universally applied to describe either the Betacam camcorder, a Betacam tape, a Betacam video recorder or the format itself.
As my last paragraph suggests, Betacam developed over the years from the analogue recording to Betacam SP to the digital recording Betacam and in it’s final iteration – introduced some 20 years after Betamax first came to market during 2003 - Betacam HDCAM SR.
When you consider that HDCAM SR is the highest quality tape format ever produced by Sony. A tape utilizing a high particle density to enable the recording of video at 440 Mbit/s in 10 bits 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 RGB and hence the support of full HD resolution, 1920 x 1080 by using much more of the full bandwidth of the HDSDI signal. Consider also that some HDCAM SR VTRs can also use a 2x mode with an even higher video bitrate of 880 Mbit/s, allowing for a single 4:4:4 stream at a lower compression or two 4:2:2 video streams simultaneously. Allay this to a system that records to tape using high quality MPEG-4 compression, and supports up to 12 audio channels at 48 kHz/24-bit and you begin to realize that Betamax was pretty darn good after all - as you might expect after Sony had sold 20,000,000 in total for all variants of the Betamax machines!
I suppose one saving grace for the diehard Betamax fan is that as the broadcast industry moves away from tape, there should be many Betacam cassettes around - interestingly, despite their myriad of different case colours, the tapes are compatible with domestic machines but unfortunately not the recordings on them so you cannot play a domestic tape on a professional machine nor vice – versa.