Technological advances in the 1970s brought unprecedented conveniences for consumer home entertainment that continues a half century later in the digital age. Further examination of the machinations that ultimately gave way to today’s instantaneous legal access to mountains of movies, television shows and music albums for a fairly nominal subscription fee shows the synergy between the record industry and Hollywood, both constantly looking for ways to reinvent themselves.
The bedrock for today’s plethora of consumer choices was laid in the 1970s in Hollywood, with protracted litigation that pitted the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, now the Motion Picture Association or MPA) against Japanese consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers, (who had their own format war going on with Betamax versus Sony). A landmark 1983 – 1984 case was decided by a 5 – 4 US Supreme Court decision in favor of the plaintiff in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., colloquially known as the “Betamax” case. This case ruled that consumers who made copies of TV shows using their VCRs did not constitute copyright infringement, but were considered to be fair use. Also, the VCR manufacturers could not be liable for contributory infringement.
Globalization was still a decade away, as a worldwide recession forced US entertainment creators to seek foreign partners for both film and television. Rupert Murdoch’s Australia-based News Corp. bought 20th Century-Fox (1985); Sony Corp. bought Columbia Records (1987); Japanese multinational conglomerate Matsushita Electric bought MCA Records (1990); and French media company Vivendi bought MCA successor Universal Music Group (2000), to name a few such deals. Previously, international contracts between countries had dealt with licensing movies, TV or music between countries.
Although Sony’s Betamax’ videocassette recorder had pushed the legal envelope, the company’s Japanese rival JVC ultimately won the marketplace with its VHS alternative for “time-shifting” televised programming. Consumers could now watch what and when they wanted at their leisure, taking control away from the program producers. The growth of cable television during the 1980s provided dozens of new niche special-interest basic and premium cable networks (CNN, Lifetime, and HBO and Showtime) to name a few.
Although technically losing the “Betamax case,” the MPAA and its studio members actually won a bonanza of an ancillary revenue stream in the new industry known as home video, which less than a decade later eclipsed the box office receipts from movie theaters. Consumers could now rent a videocassette of a movie for a few dollars, or buy it outright for $50 or more (with the price eventually declining).
Let’s not forget all the cogs in such a value chain that are required to be able to present to consumers what they don’t know they need, to cite Apple Computer Company founder Steve Jobs’s cocky business philosophy. Chains like Blockbuster Video and mom-and-pop video stores sprung up overnight, along with new cottage industries. Manufacturers built machinery to produce mass volumes of videotapes, and later, DVD and Blu-ray discs. Duplicators and replicators set up shop, as did packaging specialists. Mastering engineers and DVD authoring houses learned the new technologies, giving their livelihoods a new lease on life, a chain reaction brought on by a constant stream of new home entertainment innovations.
The CD Reinvents the Music Business, and Hollywood Watches Carefully
On August 1, 1981, MTV (for Music Television) started playing music videos 24/7 on cable TV. Suddenly, LPs and 45s became passé with their formerly main demographic. The 12-inch vinyl LP had become the leading prerecorded music through the 1970s, when youth culture had turned it into a real business. Here's "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles, the first video ever to be shown on MTV.
The next advancement in consumer music formats, the Compact Disc (CD), didn’t happen overnight. Researchers at Philips in The Netherlands and Sony in Japan had been separately working on the storage format of an optical disc read by a laser. It took several years, but the two companies ultimately pooled their resources so that a single format would emerge in 1982 that the entire industry could get behind. A key to the CD’s adoption was the record labels allowed retailers to return unsold CDs, limiting their risk in switching over to a new format, while at the same time, the labels stopped taking returns on unsold LPs.
As the changeover progressed from LP to CD, the prerecorded cassette became the most popular format from 1985 until 1992. (Eight-track tape car decks were also popular in the 1970s.) While Sony might have lost the VCR war, its Walkman portable cassette player became a worldwide smash. Suddenly music became portable – a seismic revolution in the way consumers listened to music. (Later, Sony’s Discman was also the first in the portable CD player market.)
Reinventing these industries didn’t come easy, but arguably all of them provided a leap forward in terms of consumer convenience and sound and picture quality, as well as providing extras like extended playing times, outtakes, director’s cuts and more.
In watching the record labels reinvent themselves, the movie and TV studios also saw dollar signs, and checked their egos at the door with a single marketing message that won the hearts and wallets of consumers. When these industries contemplated a new format to replace VHS tapes, it made perfect sense to use the same-sized optical disc as CD, also made of polycarbonate, and also used later for console video games and Blu-ray discs.
In 1969, on behalf of MCA, a group of 20 engineers worked on a movie delivery medium that was exactly like what ultimately became the DVD, (except for its 12-inch size), one of the developers told this author in 2000. Partnering with Philips, MCA’s top-secret project eventually became the LaserVision LaserDisc, offering a leap forward in picture quality on its release in 1978.
RCA and Pioneer were also working on similar 12-inch videodiscs that made it to market as SelectaVision. In the 1990s in the Middle East and Asia, the advent of CD-sized Video CDs foreshadowed the introduction of the DVD-Video format in 1996.
As an extension of the CD and DVD technical specifications, publishers used CD-ROM and DVD-ROM discs to offer rich content, including full-motion video, of everything from Shakespearean plays to educational kids games. Once again, new licensed revenue streams were generated from old media literature and timeless television franchises.
Running on a parallel track and sprung from coin-operated public arcades, Video games became a massive, recession-proof business that captured kids’ attention spans and allowances once home consoles and hand devices from Atari and Nintendo in the 1980s came on the market.
Napster Ushers in the Digital Age for Better or Worse
In the late 1990s, the free (and illegal) music file-sharing service Napster created a tsunami from which the recorded music industry never recovered. It’s nearly impossible to compete with free, and Napster’s widespread availability of lower-resolution MP3 audio files proved that the average consumer didn’t care about sound quality. It took the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) several years to litigate Napster out of existence, but the unauthorized file-sharing genie was out of its bottle and other bit-torrent services sprang up that allowed instant illicit access to songs, albums, movies and TV shows. Two decades later, an illegal bazaar with much of the same content exists in cyberspace, as anti-piracy crusaders plod in a Whack-A-Mole game to enforce intellectual property rights.
The RIAA did not anticipate that in the following decade, recordable CD drives would come as a standard feature of personal computers, having been obsessed with Sony’s Digital Audio Tape (DAT) format in the late 1980s, fearing that it would become a piracy juggernaut. As a result, the RIAA negotiated a royalty on blank DAT media. DAT never became the product that Sony hoped for or the RIAA feared – a digital audio format that would offer an exact sonic reproduction of what musicians, producers and engineers heard in the recording studio for the home market. At its best, DAT briefly was used as a professional storage medium and in some home recording and pro audio applications.
From a consumer standpoint, the ability to burn a curated playlist onto a blank CD became a newer version of the cassette’s mixtape (which led to many a romance). Apple Computer paid attention when it introduced its easy-to-use iPod in 2001, and iTunes music store to download individual digital tracks or full albums, quickly capturing a market for portable digital audio devices where earlier MP3 players failed.
Brick-and-mortar retailers then tried to breathe new life into arguably overpriced CDs with everything from dual-sided discs to in-store CD-burning in which shoppers could choose their own tracks from kiosks. There were online versions of these services as well. Soon after disrupting the book industry with a discounted e-commerce strategy upon its founding in 2004, the aptly-named Amazon turned its attention to selling CDs and DVDs. (Interestingly, when Netflix emerged in 2002, it used a rental model of distributing DVD movie discs via the US Postal Service.
CDs on a Steep Decline, Hi-Res Audio Format War
When an opportunity arose to come up with a music optical disc that would take advantage of the surround-sound possibilities created by the home theater boom of the 2000s, the industry once again created retail confusion with the introduction of two high-resolution formats: DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD. By 2004, a Warner Music Group executive announced that the former was as good as dead, whereas the latter still is produced in limited quantities and appreciated by audiophiles.
Speaking of which, who could have predicted the inexplicable resurgence of vinyl records. Two decades ago, nearly everyone – except audiophiles and old-school DJs – would have assumed the format was dead and buried. But it has been revived as a deluxe product, defying all technological, economic, and ecological logic in the digital age. In fact, in 2021 vinyl achieved the same sales volume that it did in 1986. Unexpectedly, CDs also are on the upswing, as are prerecorded cassettes, but such developments could be partially explained by artists not happy about having to wait 10 months to get a vinyl order fulfilled.
A visit to the Audio Engineering Society’s AES Fall 2022 convention this past October showed the pro audio industry once again focused on surround sound, which can be adaptable for home spaces as much as for movies and public exhibitions. Now all we need are to have all of our stereo albums reformatted – yet once again – for whatever the latest is in surround sound, on physical discs or through streaming applications.
That reminds me of an anecdote. Upon learning about the introduction of DVD-Video on a New York subway train in early 1998, John Waters quipped to me: “Anything that gets people to buy what they already own, I’m in favor of that.” Waters’s observation perhaps sums up the ultimate point of this article: home entertainment media distribution constantly needs to reinvent itself in order to generate profits.
In a 2003 interview, legendary record producer Phil Ramone told me how media forecasts don’t always come to fruition: “God forbid you'd say today that the CD will be gone soon.