The RCA SelectaVision: The Forgotten Format That Maybe Could Have Changed Media As We Know It

If you’ve got an hour or so to burn and you’re interested in technologies that didn’t end up working out, you might enjoy this deep dive into RCA’s SelectaVision, an attempt to modify a record player to make low cost home video possible.

It was a pretty neat idea that made a good bit of sense when they came up with it in the mid 1960s. Vinyl records were orders of magnitude cheaper and simpler to mass-produce than magnetic tape was, so if there was ever going to be a consumer friendly way of getting movie players into people’s homes, this was probably going to be it. And had it come out anywhere close to on schedule, it might have been.

Unfortunately, thanks to technical hurdles and a whole lot of corporate dysfunction, the Capacitance Electronic Disc and it’s accompanying player didn’t see the light of day until 1981, by which point companies had solved a lot of the troubles with tape and gone into the VCR business. One of those companies, interestingly enough, was RCA. They even marketed their VCRs under the name SelectaVision for a while thanks to some deals they made in Japan. But they released the CED anyway.

For obvious reasons they didn’t sell nearly as many players as they had hoped, but the people who did buy them made up for some of that shortfall by buying a lot of movies. All of this was too little, too late, of course. The VCR was off to the races and as much as some people liked it, there wasn’t enough of a market for clunky, damage-prone discs that tended to get stuck while you were watching them to keep the concept alive beyond 1985 or so.

It’s interesting to think about how much different the world might have been had RCA had its shit together. Had they released this in the early 70s like they were supposed to and beaten beta and VHS to the punch, would we have ever had the ability to record live TV? These SelectaVision machines were players, not recorders. Had they become the standard, chances are we would have been buying movies and TV seasons from the start. If RCA and other powerful companies were raking in money hand over fist that way, it isn’t a given that they would eventually add recording functionality. Where’s the incentive? And from there you wonder about all sorts of things. DVRs, other media formats, rentals, and on and on and on. But RCA did not have its shit together, and the failure of SelectaVision kind of ended up torpedoing the entire operation, something that would have seemed unthinkable years earlier.

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