RCA's 'video LP' format, doomed from the start?

From 1981 to 1984 RCA marketed the CED VideoDisc system. It never had a chance.

While the LP revival is still in full swing you rarely hear about the other 12-inch, grooved vinyl record format, the RCA VideoDisc.

It was a grooved, carbon-loaded PVC disc. The grooves were 48 times smaller than an LP groove, but they were still tracked with a diamond "needle"! That was possible because unlike an LP's zigzag grooves the CED's grooves were hills and dales. That difference also minimized groove wear, so the discs could be played hundreds of times. VHS and Beta tapes would wear out faster than that. The VideoDisc also had stereo soundtracks.

An RCA VideoDisc player CED Magic

RCA started production in late 1980, in preparation for the spring 1981 launch of the CED (Capacitance Electronic Discs) system, with high hopes of creating a viable alternative to VHS and Beta video tapes. But the company abandoned the format in April 1984. A total of about 750,000 players were sold, 550,000 units from RCA and the rest from other manufacturers. The optical, but all-analog video LaserDisc was introduced in 1978, but did not reach a nationwide market until about the same time CED was introduced. Those first generations of LaserDisc players were more expensive than the RCA machines. LaserDisc was superior to RCA's format and VHS/Beta tapes, but the LaserDisc never took hold in the U.S.. Proving yet again that the best format doesn't always prevail. Laserdisc player production continued until early 2009, when Pioneer stopped making them

RCA's players were all designed and made in the U.S., and the discs were mastered and pressed in Georgia and Indiana. The discs were sealed in a caddy cartridge, so the user would never touch or directly see the disc.

VideoDisc picture quality was a little better than that of VHS tapes of the period, but remember that in 1981 most people never watched movies at home on anything bigger than a 27-inch TV. Standard definition video was all we had.

First-generation players had a $499.95 list price. A year later they dropped to $399.95, and by the time RCA bowed out, the price was lowered to $299.95. Movie prices ranged from $19.98 to $34.98 for single disc titles, and $34.98 to $39.98 for two-disc titles. Though RCA ceased player production in 1984, new discs were released through 1986. All the major Hollywood studios were on board and they released more than 1,700 VideoDisc titles.

You can find working VideoDisc players on eBay starting at about $50, and discs sometimes go for just a couple of bucks. Thanks go out to Tom Howe and his Web site CED Magic for providing detailed information for this report.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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