The $580 Million Vinyl Movie Disaster (Selectavision)

The $580 Million Vinyl Movie Disaster (Selectavision)

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THIS is a movie. And this is a movie. And this  isn’t just a movie – it was a catastrophic   revolution in home entertainment that brought down  one of the 20th century’s biggest tech empires. It weighs nearly a pound and a half, and  it’s even larger than a LaserDisc – it’s   actually a 12 ⅝” x 13 ⅞” plastic housing  containing a Capacitance Electronic Disc   that pushed the basic concept of the  phonograph to its audio-visual limits,   all to turn your shag mustard-colored  living room into a movie theater. It took some filthy milk crates, the patience of  a Tibetan lama, and a serendipitous technology   connection to understand what this thing  was – and how to actually get it to work. It was a fascinating and ambitious idea  so good that the only possible outcome   was… a total disaster that splattered  the blood and fur of a cute terrier   mix named Nipper on the semi-truck  grill of technological progress. I was flipping through the February 1984 issue  of Popular Science when I found an article on   “Video Teachers” – and that one article took  me to a 1977 cover story, RCA R&D in 1964,   and then, weirdly, back to the future. William  J. Hawkins was reporting on new RCA interactive  

videodisc players that could do more than  just let you own and watch movies at home.   It could be an on-demand video teacher, but  you could also play Full Motion Video games. It was called the “Selectavision 400.” I’d never even heard of the Selectavision  100, and I was an 80’s kid whose dad co-owned   a video rental store. My adolescent brain  was baptized by VHS tapes and molded like  

clay in the hands of hundreds of viewings  of The Goonies, The Neverending Story,   and Adventures in Babysitting – and it was  permanently scarred by the cover for The Blob. I usually only get a piece of  tech when I know exactly what it   is – but I grabbed a refurbished RCA  SJT-400 off eBay kind of on a whim. All I had were those Popular Science articles.  Hawkins described the device's ability to provide   quizzes at the end of a videodisc lesson  to test your knowledge. “A Walk Through   the Universe” is an interactive exploration of  astronomy and the cosmos, which… seems awesome.

And that was my first problem  with the Selectavision. I searched the depths of eBay for a copy that  could arrive at the same time as my player – and   I got nothing, not even past auctions in  the sold listings. Why? Because the title   featured in the article, “A Walk Through the  Universe,” was never released to the public.

CED Magic is an exhaustive and comprehensive  website detailing all-things-Selectavision,   including a breakdown of all the interactive  releases. The page dedicated to “A Walk Through   the Universe” explains how it was only  distributed to libraries and educational   institutions – it was never available for retail  sale. So Popular Science was evangelizing the   dawn of interactive educational videodiscs  and highlighting the promise of strolling   through the universe from your couch –  just as RCA was breaking its promises. What’s going on here? Hawkins did mention three other interactive discs,  a horse-betting game and two murder mysteries. So,  

I got all three to play at the  dinner parties I don’t have. There are lots of goofy relics of antiquated  technology – but that 1977 cover story made   it clear that the Selectavision was a  revolutionary piece of Star Trek futurism. “Here At Last: Video-Disc Players.” Now we  have an endless supply of cheap, on-demand   content in our pockets and living rooms – but in  the 1970s, the only real mass media you could own   was music. It had been nearly 100 years since  the first phonograph put audio in your hands,  

and the proliferation of vinyl records  established real ownership of sound.   You could buy any song or album you wanted,  and you could play it at home whenever you   wanted. 8-tracks came along and cassette tapes  and walkmans were about to make it all portable. But video? The only way to see  a movie was at the theater,   or chopped up into commercially-separated  segments on whatever television stations   were playing fixed-time-slotted  programming on a handful of channels. Did ya miss the latest episode of The Incredible  Hulk with Lou Ferrigno? Too bad! Did you eat   Grandma Gertrude’s dodgy oyster dip to be polite?  Great, well that one time Star Wars actually came   on, you spent the Mos Eisley cantina scene  and the Death Star explosion in the bathroom.

John Free’s article about RCA and Phillips/MCA  videodisc players described a future where   viewers could control what they watched  and when. He’d seen RCA’s Selectavision   – which was physically massive – with discs  that could hold 30 minutes of video on each   side. They didn’t have a caddy yet, so they  required extremely delicate handling. He wrote,   “Pictures I’ve seen at several  demonstrations were excellent.” The keys to entertainment were about to  be handed over to consumers. He said,  

“Both the RCA and Philips/MCA players  will appear in stores just when new home   video-cassette recorders, video games,  and pay-cable programming are teaching   viewers that their TV receivers can easily display  something other than fixed-time broadcast fare.” He was absolutely right, and so  was RCA – about 40 years too soon. Anyone reading this cover story  would’ve expected the units to   be on shelves. The article actually  indicates availability later that year. It was… not available later that year. Or  the next year, when the LaserDisc launched   with Jaws. Or for the rest of Jimmy Carter’s  presidency. Even in 1980, the three things on  

ice were the Cold War, a hockey miracle,  and the rollout of the Selectavision. The Selectavision took four more years  to hit shelves. And that was a problem. But the idea was fantastic. Everyone  loved collecting vinyl records and   curating realtime audio expressions of their  identities. Why wouldn’t they want to do the   same thing with movies they loved  that were basically vinyl records? If you’re RCA, there’s no reason NOT to think  this wouldn’t be a billion dollar industry. And  

they actually projected that by 1990 their annual  videodisc-related revenue would be $7.5 billion. That… did not happen. Let’s get back to my  Selectavision, BECAUSE IT’S BROKEN. When I unboxed it, it had a warning label  that said “REMOVE BOTH RED SCREWS BEFORE   USE” that was stuck on with painter’s tape.  Okay. I asked the guy who sold it to me what  

was up with the screws – and he explained that,  “They were there to lock the pickup sled in the   home position so it couldn't move, and possibly  break some fragile plastic gears. Originally,   there would have been a pair  of plastic "shipping tabs." Extreme fragility and delicate  technology go together like the   chicken and jell-o in a silhouette  salad, so we’re off to a good start! I turned it on and popped the plastic  cassette in, and… it spit it right back   out at me. That seemed really weird to me – I  figured I’d just put it in like a VHS tape and   it would stay in there. I pulled it back out and  instantly heard this horrendous banging sound. These discs are not like VHS tapes – they  called the cartridge a “caddy,” and it's   just a protective housing for the disc  inside. It’s not integrated into the unit  

the way a floppy disk is. And this makes perfect  sense, because the disc can’t be totally covered   by a plastic shell when it needs to be read  with a physical stylus like a record player. But mine was about to explode  and I had to defuse this bomb.   I went to hit the eject button, and… there  is no eject button. There is a REJECT button,  

which is strangely poetic. Now it’s telling  me to put the shell BACK into the machine so   it can suck the disc back into it. And  with that I can finally shut it off. Okay, so I messaged the seller to let him  know that, uhhh, this thing sounds broken.   He said it’s happened to him before when  shipping Selectavisions, and that I need   a one sixteenth inch allen wrench to adjust  the player height – that’s what’s causing   the knocking. He even linked me to a video  showing me how to fix it, which was awesome.

The video is literally a guy with a  Selectavision propped up on Powerade   bottles… because the adjustment hole  is ON THE BOTTOM OF THE UNIT. It’s   inaccessible if it’s on a table, and you  really need to be playing a disc while   you make the platter height adjustment  so you know how much to turn the bolt. So this is kind of a pain, but whatever –  I’ve got a folding hex key set. And… the  

smallest is five sixty-fourths. This set stops one  sixty-fourth of an inch short of the size I need. OF COURSE. My dad saved me an Amazon order by  having a kit with a one sixteenth,   and he had a couple dirty old milk crates  I could use to balance the Selectavision   on while I adjusted it. After a few  quarter turns the knocking sound was   gone and I was successfully spinning “48  Hours” with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. But that’s a movie – not an interactive  game. One of the things that fascinated  

the Popular Science writer was the 400’s  revolutionary way to control viewing   and interactivity with the Digital Command  Center Remote – so I needed to fire this up. RCA spent nearly a quarter of its entire history  getting to its complex series of buttons – and   what’s inside the videodisc caddy itself is  so complex that I had to call in YouTube’s   leading expert on the Selectavision to  explain to me how it actually works. But before that we need to  know who we’re dealing with. The Radio Corporation of America  was founded in 1919 – it dominated   radio communications. They created the  National Broadcasting Company NBC in 1926,   and purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company  3 years later – that’s how Nipper got to be the   most recognizable dog of the 20th century.  They helped pioneer the television industry,   and in 1954 they launched the  first consumer color television.

So yeah. RCA was huge. They’d always been at the  forefront of media technology,   and after the color TV they  were looking to develop the   next big thing. Why wouldn’t they go from  democratizing audio to democratizing video? The problem was… well, there  were a lot of problems. When RCA got the idea for a videodisc  in 1964, the physical format of it made   a lot of sense. Yeah, what they developed  is extremely sensitive to dust, humidity,   scratches, and fingerprints in a way that  incredibly sturdy vinyl records aren’t,   but that’s ok – you can imprison it in a  protective caddy. But it turned out even  

with that layer of insulation, the discs still  deteriorated – and that led to permanent skipping   that could never be cleaned. Never. Because  trying to clean it would just make it worse. Why? How did any of this even work? Hi, Kevin. The plastic caddies held what they  called Capacitance Electronic Discs. The concept   isn’t much different from vinyl records but it  took years to figure out how to store 200 times   as much information as a long-playing record on  a similar disc. The players spun an 11.8-inch   disc at 450 revolutions per minute, 13 times  faster than a record player. The conductive   carbon-loaded PVC discs held high-density  spiral grooves measuring 1/10,000th of   an inch on each side read by a keel-shaped  diamond stylus. As it’s reading the discs,   an electronic circuit is formed that contains  four frames of video with each rotation of the   disc. Which is why when you hit pause the screen  just goes black. It can’t freeze-frame on four  

frames at once. Each side of the disc held 60  minutes of information so any movies over 120   minutes required a second video disc. Uhh, hope  this helps! Good luck and happy VideoDisc-ing. Okay. It’s ironic that by pushing  the technology of vinyl records to   their absolute limit, they turned  one of the most reliable chunks   of media in tech history into one of  the most fragile things ever created.

RCA put 17 years of development into the  Selectavision between its conception and   release. Everyone increasingly wanted  everything at home. A kitchen with the   same appliances restaurants had, a swimming  pool in the backyard – what wouldn’t you want   at home? And why not your own movie theater  where you decided what would be on the screen? RCA Chairman Edgar Griffiths said that  RCA was committed to VideoDisc not   just for this generation, but for the  next and the next. Audio media hadn’t   changed substantially in 50 years – why  wouldn’t video follow the same trajectory? RCA launched the videodisc with $20  million of marketing in its first year,   including an hour-long presentation hosted by  legendary NBC news journalist Tom Brokaw. It   even had its own song, “We’re Stayin’ In  Tonight!” performed by people who marched   out of a giant RCA television to dance on top  of a humongous Selectavision – look at this! “We’re all through sayin’ Hey, what else is playin?  Or what time’s the game or fight? We can stay right home and see it all  Night after night! We won’t have to stand in line We’re stayin’ in tonight!  You play your disc I’ll play mine  We’re stayin’ in tonight!” Yeah nothing could hype me up more  to play an interactive who-dun-it   style full motion video murder mystery  game scratched off a piece of plastic   and magically projected into my TV. It  looks like, mama, I’m stayin’ in tonight! VidMax claimed that “Murder, Anyone?”  was the first interactive game of its   kind. And being able to show you  that was its own tech labyrinth. To both play the game and record the footage, I  needed to use the Selectavision’s bizarre remote   while also getting the footage to my laptop.  I got an analog to digital video capture card,  

then a USB 2.0 to USB-C adapter for the laptop.  I connected everything to a video/audio splitter   that I use to hook up retro video game consoles  and it didn’t work. The splitter had 5 inputs,   but only 1 output, and I needed to  output both the TV and the laptop.   I found a 1-input, 4-output splitter on Amazon  and now for the first time in YouTube history   we can see “Murder, Anyone?”, “A Week at  the Races” and "Many Roads to Murder.”

I threw in Murder, Anyone? and  got the CRT surprise of my life. Three years before she went Back to the Future,   and four years before she rocked out with  Howard the Duck, Lea Thompson made her   acting debut as distant cousin Sissy Loper in  this forgotten videodisc murder mystery game. And private investigator Stew Cavanaugh was  played by Paul Gleason, who three years later   would be immortalized in 1980s cinematic lore  as Bender’s nemesis in The Breakfast Club. There are 16 murder mysteries you can choose  to play at any time in any order. Here’s how   you do that – which is so intricate that it  should be in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons   handbook you should’ve been  playing instead of this.

On your Digital Command Center Remote, press  “Program” and then “Band” to bring up a 10-slot   numerical program band. The instructions include  a menu of all 16 stories and their respective   Program Band codes. So if you want to play  “Death Strikes at Nine,” you input 03, 06, 10,   17, and 22, and then press the “SEEK” button.  This tells the Selectavision to skip around  

the disc to those respective sections and present  the scenes required to watch that specific story. So, you watch the story, and that’s the end of  Side 1. When you’re ready to solve the case,   you have to eject the disc and flip it over to  Side 2, which is the Investigation File. Then   you enter the Band number not the Program Band  number to get to your story and then call up   clues by searching Pages on the disc. Here, the  directory gives you PAGE number information for   the location of everything you need to solve  the murder. This includes interviews with all  

the suspects, which are NOT VIDEO INTERVIEWS  – they’re text with a single question and   answer. And there’s no background music or  sound of any kind. Just dead silence. Then,   you just pull up a list of clues like  a blackmail note from the butler,   or a telephone record with the times a  call was made. And after you view each   clue you have to go back to the proper BAND  number and start that process all over again. If you’re stuck, you can access DESPERATION  slides that reveal the most pertinent clues. To solve the case you run through the Murderer,  Motive, and Method lists, which each have number   values. The murder is two numbers, the motive  and method are one number each. To input the  

accusation you hit the Page button and enter your  Accusation Index, which is the two numbers of the   Murderer, the number for the Motive and the Method  combined into a two number pair, and then 00. If your accusation is wrong, the screen says,   “Incorrect! Lose a turn!” and if it’s  right it says, “Correct! You win!” If you’re hosting a party and everyone’s playing  this game, you literally have to choose someone   to NOT have fun. The inputs are so frequent and  complex that someone has to be designated to pay   close attention all the time so they can respond  with the right input, or else your Uncle Frankie   guzzles his 4th martini as he’s waiting and  your boss who you never should’ve invited in   the first place is so bored he’s thinking  about your replacement. It’s like deciding  

on a designated driver, but it’s a designated  remote jockey. Why wouldn’t you just play Clue? Because this is the cutting edge interactive  movie game technology of 1982. Was it fun   then? I have no idea. I wasn’t born. But it’s  ambitious and totally different from the best   of electronic entertainment in the era – you were  interacting, sort of, with legit Hollywood actors   in a sophisticated way compared to trying to  get Q*Bert down a pyramid. The market at the   time disagreed – it decided that blasting Space  Invaders on an Atari 2600 was a lot more fun.

“Many Roads to Murder” is the thrilling  sequel to “Murder, Anyone?” in which Paul   Gleason returns as Stew Cavanaugh – but Lea  Thompson had already moved on to Jaws 3-D,   a youth guerilla war against the Soviets, and  a misguided attempt to seduce her own son. And if you loved how RCA bet  it all on the Selectavision,   you could wager your entire fake retirement  account on a horse named Whippersnap. “A Week at the Races” was a horse gambling  game hosted by Willie Shoemaker – he won 11   triple crown races in his career and is one of  the greatest jockeys of all time. You had the   play money and numbered plastic pieces to place  your bets. You pick a horse, watch the race,  

and see who wins and who places – and, strangely,  not who shows. The back of the caddy claims it   offers unlimited fun, but with 48 pre-recorded  races it seems like it offered 48… fun. Can you imagine the fights that would break out  from someone accusing another person of already   having seen the race? The hosts could never  play, they already knew the result. And how   many times could you invite the same guest  over to play fake interactive horse racing? The instructions even mention that you need  to keep a log of the races you’ve already   watched and the murders you’ve already solved  to avoid repeats… which you’d better not lose. The thing is… the Selectavision revolution was   dead before those horses even  broke out of the starting gate. Margaret B. W. Graham spent nearly 10  years writing the definitive account of  

the Selectavision for her book “Business  of Research: RCA and the VideoDisc.” It   actually started as an applied history  project at the Harvard Graduate School of   Business Administration in 1976 – 5 years  before the Selectavision was even out. She explains that RCA was coming off a generation  of trying to find the successor to the color TV,   including 1971’s $250 million failed attempt at  getting into the mainframe computer business.  

They were desperately trying to return to  their former glory as a systems innovator. And they saw video discs as an affordable, mass  market way to bring movies into the world’s   living rooms. The players cost $499, which is  $1,800 today, and each disc cost between $14.98   and $24.98 – which would be $54 to $90 now. VCRs  existed, but they were for rich people – they were   twice as expensive and VHS tapes were almost four  times as much as video discs. VHS movies could be   up to $90 – adjusted for inflation, it was nearly  $300 to own a copy of Bedknobs & Broomsticks.

RCA was already selling VCRs for  high-end users… THAT WERE ALSO   CALLED SELECTAVISION. So you’d go into  an RCA dealer to ask for a Selectavision,   and they’d have a ridiculous conversation with  you about whether you wanted the disc thing or   the tape thing and answer 42 questions  about each one. RCA dealers hated this. And that wasn’t even the major problem. They  misjudged whether consumers wanted to own   movies at all. The real videophiles did, and  they actually bought way more movies than RCA  

expected them to. They launched with a massive  library of 100 titles and estimated that a home   would average 8. The real number was upwards  of thirty – but they only sold 550,000 players,   so they couldn’t justify continued investment  in the one aspect they were crushing it with. The question they didn’t seem to ask  is: how many movies do you want to own,   versus how many do you just want to watch? The  VHS rental industry exploded because people wanted   to pay a couple bucks to see a movie – it was a  low-cost grab bag, and if the movie was great then   maybe you’ll rent it again in the future, and  if it wasn’t? Well, onto the next one. RCA   was so intent on replicating the vinyl record  music ownership model that they didn’t realize   what streaming services are now built upon: for  most people, movies just don’t work that way. So… why couldn’t people just rent  videodiscs? BECAUSE THEY COULDN’T.  

Their contracts with movie  distributors DID NOT ALLOW FOR   RENTALS. RCA couldn’t have rented out  video discs even if they wanted to. A certain kind of media satisfied RCA’s  vision for how consumers would utilize   home entertainment: because there are some  movies people only wanted to watch at home. WITH THE DOOR LOCKED AND THE CURTAINS DRAWN. By 1984 pornographic films accounted for a full  50% of the sales and rentals of pre-recorded VHS   tapes – it was a significant reason the  VHS format took off. And RCA explicitly  

prohibited adult films from being released  on video disc because they thought it would   tarnish RCA’s wholesome, family-friendly,  puppy-staring-at-a-gramophone image. The VCR defined the entertainment of a  generation. It built its legacy on movie rentals,   recording live TV, and lust – 3 things the  Selectavision couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do.

But ultimately… they were just too  late. RCA Chairman Thornton Bradshaw   reflected on its failure by saying, “Five  years earlier it would have been a huge   success. If we came out with it three years  earlier, it would have been a good success.” And he’s probably right – if it really had  come out shortly after that 1977 Popular   Science article, it would have changed  everything. Instead, RCA lost $580 million   on the project – billions today. They stopped  production on Selectavision players on April 4th,   1984. In December 1985, a damaged, devalued  RCA was acquired by General Electric,  

and 66 years of dominance in consumer  electronics and communications was   effectively over. They gambled it all on the  Selectavision – and it cost them everything. Now we have access to every form of media we  can imagine, most of it free – a lot of it   we make ourselves, from TikTokers making short  videos with their phones to YouTubers crafting   video essays and documentaries. Every movie  and TV show you can think of is on some app,   live and archived sporting  events are on demand worldwide,   and every song you’ve ever heard is  out there – and we don’t own any of it. Margaret Graham’s postmortem on the Selectavision  concludes by saying that RCA “chose an approach   that had only two possible outcomes –  complete success or complete failure.”

RCA was right about everyone wanting   a broad variety of immersive entertainment  accessible from their homes, and now even   in their pockets. They were wrong about how  to do it. And the Selectavision’s “complete   failure” took Nipper from staring into  a gramophone to staring into the abyss. Okay. 27, 06, 22. Seek.

See… see you… see you in the f…fu…future.

2024-06-12 04:25

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