RCA’s unique vinyl-based video format arrived on the market too late to have any chance of success – but remains an intriguingly unique system.
a decade or so ago, I was wandering through a car boot sale on a Sunday morning when I came upon a stall, tucked away at the back of the sprawling venue, where assorted electronic devices were on sale. Sitting proudly in the middle of the table was a huge clunking machine that looked oddly familiar – some sort of disc player, clearly. Sat atop it were the discs in question, some 20 or so titles. At first glance, I thought that this was a laserdisc player, but on closer examination, it wasn’t. Rather, it was a Sanyo CED videodisc player, which might sound like the same thing, but is actually something rather different. Being a sucker for defunct video technology, I asked the man behind the stall what he wanted for the lot. “Make me an offer”, he replied, and thinking quickly, I pitched £15. His speed in accepting this made me think that I might have been better off starting at a fiver, but there you go.
And so a couple of hours later, I found myself sat at home with this tank of a machine and the pile of discs, at which point a certain degree of buyer’s regret hit me. Just what was I going to do with this?
The machine was so old that even connecting it to the TV proved a challenge, as there was no scart socket on it – instead, I had to dig through old cables and attempt to cobble together a way of linking up tech from 1982 with a modern TV. This was not a success, though I was never entirely sure if that was down to the connections or simply because the machine was faulty. Certainly, it switched on and the disc spun – but there was no picture. Oh well. As it was, the discs alone seemed worth the money as pieces of art, and for years afterwards, I had two or three mounted on my living room wall.
CED (that’s Capacitance Electronic Disc) discs had a unique look – big, heavyweight cases that often featured unique art variations, and my collection – ranging from Taxi Driver to 2001, Happy Birthday to Me to Poltergeist, Lady Chatterley’s Lover to ABBA The Movie – was an impressive haul. I had to give up both the player and some discs when I moved house, but I still have the best of the discs, and they still feel oddly exciting to look at.
CED was a format that should have been a success but instead was caught in development hell from its initial conception by RCA in 1964. Had it launched at any point up to the mid-1970s, then perhaps it would’ve been a hit. But by the time the format emerged in 1981 – after 17 years of trial and error – it was too late. Videotape had established an unconquerable foothold in households, and laserdisc was also on the market for film collectors. Why anyone would need yet another format is anyone’s guess, especially one that was spectacularly ill-suited to the world of video rental that had emerged as the way most people wanted to consume pre-recorded media.
CED used vinyl records to play video – a fascinating concept, and one less fiendishly complex than you might think. It turns out that there was no reason why video content could not be pressed on vinyl in much the same way as audio and played back in a similar manner by a stylus. In fact, much of the delay in launching the format was down to RCA engineers needlessly complicating the whole thing when in fact the simple idea – playing the discs much as one might play a record (with certain important differences), and pressing them in much the same way – turned out to be the better way. The idea was that CED players and discs would be priced at much the same level as audio record players and LPs, making them more attractive to consumers; VHS and Betamax tapes, on the other hand, had to be duplicated in real-time and videotape was expensive, meaning that pre-recorded tapes were very expensive. Had the market been based around single purchase titles, then CED might well have wiped the floor with tape even in 1981, with home set-ups perhaps reflecting hi-fi units – the VCR a recorder for taping off TV, the CED player for your collection of movies and TV shows. But it turned out that people didn’t really want to buy movies in the way they bought records – they were happy to rent videotapes. CED’s selling point of price – which had already moved from ‘the price of an LP’ to at least double that by launch date – didn’t really matter to most people who couldn’t see the point of buying a film for $20 when they could rent one for $5 or less.
CED’s thin, almost flexidisc vinyl format also made it more susceptible to damage. You had to keep the disc in its caddy sleeve, inserting the whole thing into the player with a degree of brute force, and if you were tempted to take a look inside the caddy – well, it was pretty much game over. Merely touching the vinyl could ruin it. It was claimed that a disc could be watched around 500 times before wearing out, which might sound good for someone buying one – I mean, how often were you going to watch any single movie? – but perhaps made it less appealing for rental. While VHS tapes would wear out over time, the nature of CED meant that damaged and worn discs were immediately far less playable. As far as picture quality went, CED and VHS were effectively identical, and CED had much better sound quality than videotape in 1981 – essentially CD quality. But none of this was enough to convince people who might have only just paid a pretty penny for their VCR that they needed to invest in yet another player that offered no worthwhile advantage.
For those who did buy the player, though, it seems as though they were more than happy with their purchase. By all accounts, the average owner bought a couple of films a month, and if more machines had been sold, this fact alone might have made it a viable format. But there was still less content available on CED than on VHS (and, we might note, no porn) – for the uncommitted, the attractions of the format still seemed limited compared with the endless supply of titles in their local video rental shop.
In the end, CED lasted until 1984, when RCA officially dropped the format; the final discs were issued in 1986. It could be said that the discs are rather more collectable than the players these days, though, like any dead format, CED still has its admirers. it does seem a shame that the format was both too late and too soon – as DVD showed at the end of the 1990s, there was an audience after all for playback-only formats; but DVD emerged when VHS was so established that a new format did not seem such a major investment, and when television sizes and broadcast formats had improved to the point where a better, digital picture was increasingly demanded.
There’s a fascinating world of misfired video and audio formats out there – everything from minidisc to Video CD – but CED seems the most intriguing, if only because it had so much potential. My small collection of discs remains a treasured one and, frankly, if I ever found another player going cheap, I’d almost certainly snap it up (but then, I still regret not buying a V2000 player when I had the chance). There’s something pleasingly organic about the format, and the discs are more aesthetically pleasing than just about any other home video format I can think of. As mad follies go, this is one of the finest.
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