Videos With a Groove: RCA VideoDisc Spun Up Movies in the 1980s

by on March 7th, 2015
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In garages and lost corners lurks a fascinating bit of lost home move technology from the days when VHS tapes were king, laser discs were the new wave, and DVDs were years off. Imagine a phonograph record in a cardboard sleeve with a special plastic edge. Holding the sleeve, you slide it into a bulky machine similar to the old LaserDisc machines. When you pull the sleeve out the disc stays behind. A diamond stylus drops into the lead grove as the disc spins up, paving the way for a thin electrode to reconstruct the charge stored on the disc into an image and sound.

Welcome to the lost world of the RCA SelectaVision VideoDiscs, or simply RCA VideoDiscs from the 1980s! Being too young to afford video equipment then, I never saw one of these beasts until it turned up at a thrift store where I worked in the 1990s. The deck was accompanied by 30 discs of familiar films. Being curious types, several of us hooked it up to a TV, slapped in a disc and spun it up. After about 15 years of likely inaction, the film began to play (Gone with the Wind, I think).

In terms of quality, the image seemed better than VHS tape but not as good as a LaserDisc. The drawbacks were obvious – a needle dragging on the surface of a disc means wear. Needles skip. Cardboard buckles over time. And of course there was the fact that LaserDiscs were more durable and delivered a better image and sound.

According to www.cedmagic.com, the format lived on for about 6 years, with at least 1,700 known titles, and by some accounts more. A co-worker, feeling sorry for the old machine, took it under his wing in return for the store’s asking price of maybe $20 which, considering the price of LaserDiscs at the time, was not a bad deal! Ironically, just a few years later, when I was working at a now defunct music/video/software/ book retailer, I got to watch as the rows of LaserDiscs began to shrink while the rows of DVDs expanded.

The road to progress in audio and video storage and playback is littered with dead formats like VideoDiscs, LaserDiscs, and probably soon with regular DVDs. But I suspect for a few diehard collectors, carefully tended discs of this long gone format are still spinning.


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