The videodisc. This device was, at one time, the single most elusive idea ever. For decades, companies spent, collectively, millions of dollars developing and attempting to market the videodisc player.
As early as the 1920’s, the videodisc played a role in the development of television. When mechanical television was the rage, videodiscs were used as a means to record and play back material for experimentation and, eventually, broadcasting. As mechanical television faded away, so did the videodisc and magnetic tape became the norm.
However, sometime in the late 1950’s, the notion of a home device using the videodisc to play back recorded material began to take root. During the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, RCA led the way in the development of a practical home video disc.
RCA chose the needle in groove method and, in the late 1970’s, had a viable system ready to go to market. In 1979, they introduced the CED system, or capacitive electronic disc. Employing a 12 inch disc and ruby tipped needle, the system worked very much like the then commonplace vinyl record. Video and audio were etched into a disc and a needle, riding just above the surface of the disc, detected the signal on the disc and sent it back to the processing unit for conversion to standard audio and video. Later in the life of the system, stereo audio and limited programmability were introduced.
CED went public in March of 1981 and met with some success. Many retail stores carried the players and the discs. Programming ranged from feature films to television series to how to’s and childrens programming. In fact, one of the quintessential home video phenomenon’s from the 1980’s, Jane Fonda’s Workout, was produced specifically for CED.
Because the discs could be made cheaply, using similar pressing techniques as vinyl records, the consumer was rewarded with a bevy of relatively cheap material. Movies were, generally, around twenty dollars. Twenty dollars was dirt cheap when you consider that movies on Beta or VHS tape were close to a hundred bucks. And, the picture quality-at least on new discs-was better than tape. CED had everything going for it, including multiple sources for discs and hardware. Plus, RCA advertised the system almost to excess. There were stores devoted to just the CED system. Rental of discs became a business.
I remember we got our first player from one of those rent-to-own places. We were so excited. Not only could we afford to get the player, the store rented the discs, three for ten dollars for a week! I could watch them over and over for a week! Star Trek, the Muppets, Mash the movie, you name it, I could get it on the CED. I got a player of my own for Christmas of 1983. By then, I had collected a small number of discs, around 10 or so. Now, I could watch them in my bedroom.
Over the next year or so, I bought discs every chance I got. I found myself buying discs over video games! My excitement for the format, however, would soon die.
In 1984, RCA announced they were ceasing the development of CED and would, at the end of the year, cease to manufacture the players. Hitachi, on the other hand, announced that they would continue to make the players. RCA said they would continue to make discs for three years or until demand went away. They discontinued the discs in 1986. And, that was that.
CED was the last electronic entertainment medium to be conceived and manufactured in the United States by an American corporation. It also closed the book on the need-in-groove technology popularized by Edison in the previous century. Needle-in-groove technology had a great run, one only surpassed by the telephone and the internal combustion engine.
I held onto my player and collection of discs (which numbered almost two hundred at one point) until around 2000. I had purchased a couple of spare needles over the years and only had to use one of them. The players held up fairly well, but, unfortunately, the discs did not.
Since there was contact between the need and the disc, however light that contact was necessary and the discs suffered from wear and tear. Even though they were encased in a plastic jacket, the discs had to be removed and reinserted into those caddies. Even though that process was mechanical, dirt and dust still took their toll and, eventually, the discs would suffer from video degradation and skipping. They could get to the point of being unplayable.
So, what caused the demise? Simple. Another device that RCA made popular, the VHS deck. The public became enamored with recording tv shows and since HBO and Showtime were getting popular, people did not buy movies. In all, RCA sold fewer than a million players. Disc production, however, was profitable for them and that is why they continued as long as they did. They underestimated those who did buy movies. Like me.
I’m only a little nostalgic for the player and discs. I also had a Pioneer LaserDisc, which had superior video and audio. And, I imagine, in a few years, I’ll feel that way about DVD. But, CED was my first real piece of home video gear, so it does have a soft spot, but only a small one.
For a more complete picture of the CED format, go here.