I had a misconception or two. For one thing I had long though they wars were over in the early 80's and had no idea that Beta lasted as long as it did.
You could rent any of 20 Beta Titles or 100's of VHS titles at the local video store.
The AFU and Urban Legend Archive
Beta vs VHS
From: email@example.com (Helge Moulding)
Subject: AFU Whitepaper: The Decline and Fall of Betamax (Long)
Date: Wed, 8 May 1996 19:34:04 GMT
AFU White Paper: The Decline and Fall of Betamax
The story of Sony's Betamax (TM) format is not an isolated one, but it is
instructive. It is also surrounded by legend and myth, so a closer look at
it might be useful.
Getting To the Table
The story begins long before 1974, when the technology to record video data
on magnetic tape was maturing. By itself, it doesn't sound like a daunting
task, until the sheer volume of data is considered. There is a practical
limit to the speed with which magnetic tape can be transported past the
read/write heads of a record/playback machine; this limit was overcome
almost a decade before Sony's home market debut by designing a head that
turned past the tape, and wrote it's information on the tape at an angle.
If you've ever peered inside your VCR and wondered why that silvery cylinder
back in there wasn't sitting straight, you know now that the basic
technology hasn't changed in thirty years.
By the 1970s there were several Japanese industry giants poised to deliver
home video taping equipment. These machines had to be orders of magnitude
more reliable than the clumsy existing professional machines, and Sony was
the first to consider their efforts market ready. According to James
Lardner, author of _Fast Forward_ (New American Library), Sony invited
Matsushita and JVC to license the Betamax technology in December 1974. 
Sony's Morita was apparently not aware that JVC was almost ready to market
their own machine, so may have come as a rude surprise to him when JVC and
Matsushita declined the offer. JVC believed it had a better product, and
didn't see that the Betamax offered anything new. Moreover, Sony's
overbearing attitude in this meeting may have made a definite impression on
Upping the Ante
In any case, for a year Sony had the VCR market to itself, selling 30,000
Betamax VCRs in the US.  But when JVC came out with the VHS format VCR in
1976, the stage was set for the format wars. JVC had a machine that already
doubled Sony's recording time of one hour, and that difference would prove
By January 1977, JVC was joined by four more Japanese electronics
manufacturers to build and market VHS format VCRs. Then, in February, Sony
abandoned its long-standing policy against OEM deals and joined forces with
Matsushita struck back by attempting to recruit RCA. RCA indicated that the
VHS recording limit of two hours should be increased to three or four, and
six weeks later, a prototype was ready. In March RCA joined the VHS camp.
Bidding for the Customer
While price later was less of a factor, in 1977 the VHS manufacturers, led
by Matsushita, got into the trenches. VCR prices dropped as they became
cheaper to make. RCA led by dropping prices $300 below the Sony machine,
which caused an avalanche of follow-on price cutting. Eventually even Sony
was forced to drop its price by $200. By 1982 the price war was in full
swing, and Sony was offering a $50 dollar rebate as a "Home Improvement
The comments from the sidelines were fairly equinamous. In September 1977,
the Saturday Review declared that "Eventually, the public learned to live
with two record speeds [33 1/3 and 45 rpm], and doubtless it will also
resign itself to two videotape systems."
If nothing else, these comments showed that industry observers themselves
hadn't a clue about the technology involved in the VCR.
An Unexpected Joker
Few bits of USAn history are complete without involving lawyers. In 1979, a
suit brought against Sony by Universal Studios and Disney was getting into
final arguments. At stake was the question if manufacturers of VCRs were
infringing on the copyrights of producers of movies and TV programs.
The suit, which named only Sony, eventually left Universal and Disney with
no recourse except to consider how to make money from the new technology.
Sales of VCRs were apparently unaffected by talk of the legal procedings.
However, even as late as September 1980, the word "Betamax" was used by many
as synonymous with "VCR."  It is possible that the court case had
consequences on Sony's marketing that have never been considered. This is
particularly notable when combined with the fact that Sony's share of the
VCR market had sunk to 19.1% in 1978, compared to RCA's share of almost
twice that at 36%.
Who's Stuck With the Old Maid?
As Sony's market share declined, the manufacturers of prerecorded VCR tapes
began to adjust their product lines. Already in January, 1981, Betamax
format VCRs accounted for merely 25% of the entire market, and consumers
were being warned that the selection for VHS would be "slightly broader."
The Finessed King
Technologically, the two formats were each other's equal. True, except for
the recording length, Sony pioneered most of the improvements over the
years, but the VHS manufacturers caught up to each improvement, usually in
less than a year. So, for instance, within a month of Sony's announcement of
Beta Hi-Fi, JVC and Panasonsic announced VHS Hi-Fi formats. Interestingly,
the two VHS formats were incompatible with each other. 
Comparisons between VCRs with similar features showed no significant
differences in performance. In fact, most of the differences could only be
seen with sensitive instruments, and likely would never show up on most
consumer grade television sets.  In particular, the qualitative
differences between the two formats were less than the differences between
any two samples from the same manufacturer. 
Possibly because of Beta's unpopularity, Beta VCRs were much cheaper than
similar VHS VCRs by the end of 1985. A Beta HiFi VCR could sell for half the
price of a VHS Hi-Fi VCR in 1984 , and by the end of 1985 Betas were
selling for under $300. 
The Fat Lady Sings
In 1987, Rolling Stone announced that "The battle is over."  On Jauary
10, 1988 Sony admitted to plans for a VHS line of VCRs. VHS players
commanded 95% of the VCR market. 
In May 1988, Video magazine came out with an article entitled "Beta Survival
Guide."  And in September Sony's first VHS recorders came off its
assembly lines.  A year later, the Betamax share of the consumer VCR
market had dropped to less than 1%. 
Today the format is still around. In 1994, Video magazine published another
survival guide, explaining that the scarcity of blank Beta tapes has
consumers buying up prerecorded tapes at fire sale prices, to record over
Counting up the Points
Sony did not commit the sins ascribed to them by most of the pundits
explaining the demise of Betamax.
1. Sony did not "refuse to license Betamax."
In its January 25 issue, Time explained that "While at first Sony kept its
Beta technology mostly to itself, JVC, the Japanese inventor of VHS, shared
its secret with a raft of other firms."  This is blatantly untrue. While
Sony was decidedly behind in the licensing of its technology, it tried from
the very beginning to sign on other manufacturers to the Beta standard.
2) Betamax was not too expensive.
Consumers buying a new VCR saw only minor pricing differences between the
two formats. Those looking for the latest technology could apparently find
Betamax machines for much less than comparable VHS machines. (Interestingly,
one article  that makes this statement actually compares two machines
where the VHS version is $600 dollars cheaper than the Betamax machine.
Possibly the technophile streak that appears to be the curse of many Betamax
afficionadoes influences buying decisions much more than price.)
3) There was no shortage of prerecorded Beta tapes
This at least was true initially. Only once the Betamax share had declined
well below the VHS share, did prerecorded tape manufacturers try to decrease
4) The Universal and Disney's suit against Sony had no determinable effect
on Sony's standing in the VCR market. However, this issue is less than
Even Sony today agrees that the difference in recording length was the
difference that layed Beta low.  The other factor appears to have been
the one factor for which no company can control: pure luck.
 "The Format War," Video Magazine, April 1988, pp50-54+
 "Whatever Happened to Betamax?", Consumers' Research, May 1989, p 28
 "The Betamax Blues", New York, September 15, 1980, p 43
 "Beta/VHS What's the Difference", Video Today, January 1981, p A8
 "VHS Meets Beta", Popular Electronics, August 1981, p 43
 "Even Sony Can't Avoid the Price War in VCRs", Business Week, September
6, 1982, p 33-34
 "VHS Hi-Fi: JVC Answers Back", High Fidelity, September 1983, p 65
 Stereo Review, April 1984, p 66
 "Tape Format Face-Off", High Fidelity, September 1985, p 45
 "To the Beta End", Forbes, Dec 16, 1985, p 178
 "Format Wars", Rolling Stone, Ja 15, 1987, p 43
 "Sony Isn't Mourning the 'Death' of Betamax", Business Week, Ja 25,
1988, p 37
 "Goodbye Beta", Time, Ja 25 1988, p 52
 "Beta Survival Guide", Video, May 88, pp 45-48
 "Video News", Radio Electronics, Sep 88, p 6
 "Whatever Happened to Betamax", Consumers' Research, May 89, p 28
 "Desperately Seeking Beta", Video, Feb 1994, p 42-44+