- A Record for Your TelevisionThe Capacitance Electronic Disc's History of Failure
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In February 1981, the Radio Corporation of America finally introduced to retailers and consumers an entertainment technology that they had been developing for more than fifteen years: the SelectaVision videodisc system. SelectaVision was an analog home video playback platform that resembled a moving image update of a home phonograph player. It used a diamond-tipped stylus to read the grooves of twelve-inch plastic capacitance electronic discs (CEDs) at a 225 rpm regular playing speed. As part of a "capacitance" system of decoding video and audio signals for home televisions via conductive vinyl platters, the stylus contained microprocessors that read the stored charges on discs and assembled those responses into an audiovisual signal for delivery to a monitor. Despite pouring an estimated $200 million into developing the technology, RCA eventually stopped the production of videodisc players in 1984 and CEDs in 1986, SelectaVision having played only a minor role in the home video "format wars."1 Fundamental assumptions that RCA executives expressed about the technology during its rollout indicate why.
In a 1981 closed-circuit satellite broadcast for retailers, RCA executive vice president Roy Pollack predicted that the format's relationship with its prospective users would be characterized by the technology's playback capabilities. After elaborating on SelectaVision's features, including "pause, rapid access, and visual program search," Pollack qualified this list, stating, "But even these features will probably be used infrequently, because most customers will simply insert a disc, turn the player on, and sit back to enjoy their favorite program."2 The executive presumed a passive relationship between consumer and content, predicting that users would not engage with the platform's limited features for controlling and manipulating playback, only to discover that users' ability to record and "time shift" would contribute to magnetic tape's success. Pollack also assumed that consumers would collect and revisit their "favorite programs," a mentality that would soon be humbled by a burgeoning video rental industry on the horizon. Yet, when RCA developed its CED technology based on the design and home use of the long-playing (LP) audio record and player, the company's central driving assumption made sense: that consumers would want to use moving image media in the home in the same way they had for several decades used sound media.
Scholars, historians, and archivists of home video have characterized the history of magnetic-tape recording—and its evolution into a consumer format—as one of emergent, largely undetermined, and even surprising utility.3 As researched by Joshua M. Greenberg and Daniel Herbert, the video rental industry did not start as a corporate endeavor but as a marginal entrepreneurial effort, transforming video tape from empty cartridges for recording and playing back television content into a platform that revolutionized both the movie industry and consumers' uses of their television [End Page 104] sets.4 In contrast to the magnetic-tape recording and playback technologies competing on the home video market, RCA's SelectaVision system was an overdetermined piece of technology inscribed with relatively inflexible utilities; both its place and uses within the home were pointedly articulated through RCA's technological development, rollout, and promotion. Indeed, the SelectaVision system and the CED format were largely not advertised as "new" media software. RCA instead designed, promoted, and predicated its anticipated earnings for SelectaVision based upon the established place in the home enjoyed by record players and LP vinyl discs. The CED (and the videodisc at large) constitutes a corporate strategy of remediation in J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin's conceptualization; that is, the CED exemplifies "new media as refashioned and improved versions of other media."5 RCA translated the formatting, cultural practices, and even content associated with established audio media to home video and thus presented with the videodisc a corporate idea about how new media formats come into being through the language of existing media formats and technologies. We argue that moving image media historians and archivists should approach the CED format through the lens of remediation in understanding its development, its brief lifetime, and the collector culture...