Video is Here to Stay


This article originally appeared in Issue# 42

Television's new sidekick is spreading rapidly worldwide. But its advent raises many questions.

Although advertisers and sales people always like to have us believe that any new product is indispensable for our lives, it's clear that the videocassette recorder is not just a passing technological fad.

Indeed the rapid acceptance, purchase and use of VCR technology, not only in the United States, but worldwide, in less than 10 years is nothing short of a phenomenal and highly unusual success story.

How did it come about?

Sociologists who study these questions utilize a school of thought called diffusion research. We study the rate of adoption of a new product or idea and try to understand the communication and social factors that affect how slowly — or how quickly — the idea or product is adopted by society. We want to know how a new idea spreads from the original source to potential receivers or users, and why it is that if 100 different innovations are conceived simultaneously, ten will spread while 90 will be forgotten.

Basic to any analysis of these questions is the diffusion curve, an S-shaped chart resulting from cross-referencing the number of adopters over an amount of time. An elongated curve tells us that an innovation is taking a long time to be accepted and, indeed, like the Edsel, may never make it. A steep curve indicates rapid and near-total acceptance. Years of accumulated research help us to predict what ideas and products will diffuse and — more broadly — how to prepare society for the changes that result.

A quick glance at the VCR diffusion curve on the next page tells the story. In 1980 less than one percent of all U.S. households owned a videocassette recorder. Barely seven years later, the number skyrocketed to 50 percent. Projecting the curve shows that by the end of the decade it will be over 90 percent.

This rapid diffusion raises many questions; How and why have VCRs become so popular so quickly? How has its diffusion affected other media - new technologies such as cable TV as well as established media like broadcast television or movies? How does the U.S. rate of adoption compare to other countries? And finally, what can we learn about ourselves and our increasingly mediated society from the VCR success story?

In at the Creation

Although its takeover as a Japanese technology is a long and fascinating story in itself, the first videocassette recorders were West Coast natives, manufactured in Redwood City, California in 1956. In fact, Ampex engineers scored their first big success when they recorded the famous Nixon-Khnjshchev kitchen debate" at a Moscow trade show. To their surprise, company salespersons took several million dollars worth of orders for their new recorders at a March 1956 convention of television broadcasters at which the tape of the debate was shown.

The bulky 100-lb. Ampex prototypes used two-inch reel-to-reel tape, which limited their use primarily to television stations and networks. It wasn't until Phillips, a Japanese electronics company, invented the tape cassette in 1969 that VCR technology as we know it now even became possible. In 1975 Sony introduced the Betamax system, and other Japanese companies followed the next year with the VHS technology that is dominant today.

Significantly, the growth of the VCR stymied, and eventually killed, consumer acceptance of RCA's video disc, a competing technology that stores visual information on a flat record-like disc. The video disc could play but not record: the VCR could do both and copy other tapes and programs besides.

Growth Factors

A major boost for VCR sales came with falling costs that occurred partly as a result of international competition created by Korean-made recorders in the mid-1980s. As the market enlarged, it became more competitive, lowering prices further as drops in price tags spurred sales.

By contrast, consumer adoption of cable TV rose much more slowly, taking almost 30 years to penetrate the current 50 percent of American homes. But the wider choice of programming and better reception it offered also spurred VCR sales. And conversely, VCR ownership became an incentive to subscribe to cable for its movies, sports and entertainment.

With the original Betamax selling for $2,200 in 1975, the first buyers of the new machine — the early adopters — were definitely upscale. In addition they were more likely to have children and to have previously purchased a microcomputer and cable TV. By 1987, the cost of a VCR had dropped to $250 and blank videotapes were selling for $5 or less, down from $20. As VCR ownership became more widespread, the educational and income gaps among its users narrowed.

Still another factor in the early spread of VCRs was pornography. With low-cost tape reproduction and a machine that allowed private viewing in homes, pornographic film producers early on recognized the potential of the VCR to create a new market and a new acceptability for a product previously limited to sleazy, X-rated theaters. Indeed, in 1980, when research showed that 60 percent of video sales in the U.S. were for pornographic material, some observers worried that the VCR was leading to the "porno-fication" of America. By 1987. however, as prerecorded video choices expanded dramatically, pornographic tapes receded to about six percent of total sales and rentals in the United States.

Critical Mass

Pornography may have spurred early VCR sales but the fast takeoff in VCR adoption came only when a quantity — and variety — of pre-recorded cassette tapes, especially movies, became readily available, at low cost, through the neighborhood video store.

But it almost didn't happen.

Although the motion picture industry was eventually surprised to find that VCR use increased demand for movies, its initial attitude toward video was hostile. In 1977 the industry started a seven-year legal battle to prevent off-air home taping of movies and television. The case went to the Supreme Court but the industry lost. Wisely adopting an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude, the production studios opened their vaults and started new divisions and deals for video distribution. The video store was born.

The rate of diffusion of VCRs suggests that a "critical mass" of VCR owners may have existed by about 1983, when the rate of adoption passed a certain threshold and began to increase rapidly. The idea of a critical mass comes from phvsics. where it means the amount of radioactive material that is necessary to produce a nuclear explosion. In the study of diffusion, the critical mass occurs when enough people have adopted an idea so that an adequate number of positive messages are spread interpersonally among the members of society. For VCRs, rapid adoption did not begin to occur until the infrastructure of video stores, tape rentals and blank tapes was in place, and until a certain number of satisfied users were talking to one another.

What are the consequences of this fast diffusion? One result is increased profits for Hollywood film studios, which garnered new domestic and international markets for their latest film hits. But the VCR's widespread adoption has generally been bad news for network TV. The share of the viewing audience attracted by ABC. CBS and NBC dropped from 92 percent in 1977 to about 70 percent in recent years. Some of the former network TV viewers defected to cable television, but most are preferring to 'watch video."

Around the World

VCRs have succeeded in the United States by satisfying a long-denied desire for more personal control over entertainment programming. But cultural factors in other parts of the world made it even more appealing. For example, the extremely high 95 percent VCR ownership rate in Saudi Arabia is explained by the fact that in the Middle East. men and women cannot visit public places (like movie theaters) together. VCRs make quality entertainment possible at home.

In the developing world, VCRs are not available to the poor for the same economic reasons that isolate them from television. But they are quickly be coming the preferred appliance for anyone who has accumulated enough resources. This is especially true in countries that have highly censored, low-quality or limited local television broadcasting.

But the VCR can improve local broadcasting, too, as in Venezuela where competition from video forced the government-owned broadcasting stations to shift from black-and-white to color.


What are we learning from studying the VCR story?

The first lesson reinforces a principle that became apparent with the similar rapid diffusion of black-and-white TV in the l950s. It seems clear now that when any new technology is introduced, there will be a period of severe conflict, but eventually the new technology and the existing technology will reach an accommodation and both the old and new technology will flourish.

Just like early television threatened radio and film, so early video challenged the television industry, but eventually they made peace.

A second lesson is that although human society craves innovation, we really don't want Ito be too different from what we're already used to. Video is a technology that went through many versions over two decades but the one that diffused rapidly was a basic machine that only slightly changed our viewing behavior. Old movies are still old movies. Video has yet to radically influence the quality and type of ordinary home entertainment and probably never will.

Nevertheless it is a diffusion story that is unparalleled in our time — and the research on it is not yet closed.

Author Bio: 

Everett M. Rogers, a sociologist, is associate dean for doctoral studies at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.