Betamax: The longest goodbye

VCR format seemed long gone, but Beta stalwarts do exist

September 17, 2002|By Liz Stevens | Liz Stevens,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Reporter: You might have heard. Betamax finally bit the dust.

Reader: Betamax, the video format? You must be kidding? I thought Betamax packed it in eons ago, along with Rubik's Cube and Billy Idol.

Reporter: Wrong! At the end of August, Sony announced that it would discontinue production of Betamax VCR players, after making them for 27 years. Not that the company was churning 'em out. It only made 2,800 units in 2001, and those were all for the Japanese market.

Reader: And this merits a newspaper story because ...?

Reporter: Well, OK, it's not breaking news, but here's something you probably didn't know: There still exists a passionate underground of Beta users who swear to this day that their video format of choice should have won the `80s video war. Or, in the immortal words of one Web site author, "Beta forever! VHS stinks!"

Martin Evans: We've always held out a little hope that some day Sony would release a new [Betamax] model. I think there's sort of a reluctance to let it go.

Reader: Who's he?

Reporter: Evans? He co-authors the London-based Betamax PAL Web site with Alan Barnett. It's an encyclopedia of everything Beta, including Beta Lore, where Beta-lovers offer their personal testimonials. They've also elicited some clever, and occasionally crude, responses to their query, "Tell Us What VHS Stands For": Vastly Hyped System, Very Heavy Stench, etc. ...

Evans: I think the overwhelming feeling [among Beta fans] is we'll live on.

Reader: Um, shouldn't these people be waaaaay over this by now?

Reporter: Hey, I just report the stuff. But actually, if you talk to a few Betaphiles, they have a point or two. You almost feel kind of bad for them. You almost start to think that you missed out by NOT having a Betamax player. You almost feel cheated out of a childhood full of higher resolution television, you almost ...

Reader: Yo, get a grip! VHS looks just fine to me.

Reporter: Today, maybe. But back in the mid-'70s when Sony introduced Betamax, followed shortly by JVC's VHS format, it was obvious that the Beta picture was better, Beta fans insist Not only that, but Beta players had functions that VHS players could only dream of, like the ability to bookmark scenes and to respond to commands (stop, pause, play) on a dime, without missing several seconds of tape.

Reader: I don't know. If Beta was so great, then why'd everyone buy VHS?

Reporter: For one thing, VHS tapes were originally two hours long compared to one hour for Beta tapes. Some people complained that Sony wasn't aggressive enough about marketing Betamax, so VHS players got more shelf space in stores. There's lots of theories. In any case, the VHS victory left the Beta fans slightly, well, bitter.

Vance Haemmerle: There's a certain class of people, I guess, who, when they go to a consumer electronic store, they don't just buy what the guy's pushing as a machine of the week ... [Beta fans] were disappointed that the majority of people didn't see which one was better.

Reader: Is this dude dissing us?

Reporter: Um, maybe indirectly. As a graduate student in the late '80s, Haemmerle led a mini-revolt against the VHS blitz. He founded the Betaphile Club, which had nearly 2,000 international members and published a full-color newsletter six times a year. He even got his picture in Entertainment Weekly. Today, Haemmerle works for the Jet Propulsion Lab near Pasadena, so you know he's smart.

Haemmerle: I was on a radio talk show 10 years ago and one caller [said] VHS was like fast food, and Beta was like a good restaurant. Fast food is cheaper and more convenient and people don't ... I guess quality is just not important to a lot of people.

Reader: Did someone mention food?

Reporter: Anyway, Haemmerle has never owned a VHS VCR, and he has several Betamax players, one of which - a 1987 model - has never had to be repaired. And a decent used Betamax machine can fetch a pretty penny. Audio Video Plus in Houston has a waiting list for them.

Reader: What's the point? You can't get any good movies on Beta anymore.

Reporter: True, DVDs are making even VHS players obsolete, but Beta tapes aren't too hard to find. Check out eBay. For a low bid of $9.95, Want2shar in southern Nevada will deliver Heaven Can Wait, Grease, Purple Rain and Mr. Mom, all on Beta.

Reader: You're kidding, right?

Reporter: Well, there's a place in Houston that stocks 1996's Mission: Impossible, but that's about as recent as Beta movies get. You can still record on Beta, though, which you can't do on a DVD. And Sony's announcement has truly energized the Beta subculture - for the moment, at least.

Evans: The media has all been in contact with us and there have been radio announcements. ... It's almost like a jubilee. It's been very nostalgic.

Reader: Puh-leease! I'm up to my ear lobes in nostalgia these days. No more flashbacks, no more peasant shirts, no more Family Feud reruns!

Reporter: All right, all right. I guess I'll just have to shelve that expose on laser discs. Darn.

For more information, see Betamax PAL site at www.palsite.info/home.html and the Betaphile Club at www.lpl.arizona.edu/~vance/betaphile.html

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