THROWBACK THURSDAY: Video… on records?

Back in the 1970s, you could buy movies and play them at home. Most people are familiar with the early video tape systems that existed at the time. You might have even heard of laser discs, which were a sort of early version of the DVD. But did you know there was another standard that let you play video… from records?

RCA SelectaVision

This is RCA’s SelectaVision player. It was one of the first devices in the home video market that simply played movies. Early VCRs were hard to operate and mostly focused on letting you record your own stuff. But for a movie buff, you wanted a collection. This was one of the ways you did that.

This technology really was very similar to a record player. It used a needle that physically touched a disc but instead of just sound, it played video instead. The technology had been around for about a decade by the time it was released to the public. It took that long for someone to figure out what to do with it.

The discs themselves were in protective plastic sleeves to try to keep them as clean as possible. It was estimated at the time that you could play one of these discs about 500 times before it would wear out. They thought that would be enough. Obviously any parent whose child is addicted to Moana knows that you can reach that number of plays in a very short while.

The advantages…

At the time, this was seen as a low-cost alternative to expensive VCRs. The VCRs you could get in the 1970s cost upwards of $1,000 at a time you could get a new economy car for about $4,000. Movies on VHS were priced around the $90 range. SelectaVision products were appealing because of their low cost, but the system never really did cost so little that it became an impulse buy. The cost advantage evaporated by the early 1980s when VCRs started coming down to about the $250 range. At the same time, video rental started taking off and most stores only rented tapes, not discs.

The disadvantages…

The biggest disadvantage over time was that the movie selection wasn’t that great. VHS had better selection, and the competing LaserDisc format had a lot of movies that SelectaVision didn’t.

LaserDiscs also had a certain mystique that SelectaVision discs didn’t. SelectaVision was always marketed as a lower-cost option. The quality on both kinds of discs really wasn’t that different, but the shiny disc read by a laser seemed oh-s0-futuristic in the 1970s.

Both disc formats eventually fell to VHS and then to DVD, but the LaserDisc continued to soldier on into the 1990s because it offered superior quality to VHS. Sales of SelectaVision disc players ended in 1984, leading to pretty large numbers of both players and discs finding themselves in thrift stores for the better part of a decade.

It all just takes me back…

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, a physical media collection full of books, records, tapes, and movies made you a star. If you people to take you seriously, you needed one. People judged each other by what they read and listened to. The real collectors, the ones with wall-sized shelves full of media, ruled the roost. They sat at the top of the technology ladder. That all ended in the 21st century of course. Downloadable media and now streaming services have given everyone access to unlimited music and movies, and owning something generally just marks you as an oldster.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.