Assumptions and Failures

LaserDisc, when good timing is everything!

Helen Marouli
Feb 26, 2019 · 5 min read
credit: www.todayifoundout.com

There wouldn’t be any DVD’s or Blu-ray discs if there wasn’t David Paul Gregg’s and James Russell’s invention called LaserDisc. LaserDisc was a 12 inches home video format and the first commercial optical disc storage medium, which, although it was invented in 1958 it was licensed, sold and marketed as MCA DiscVision in the U.S. in 1978. LaserDisc had a lot of common features of DVD, like video and audio quality, but it never succeeds to become that popular. Although it did much better in the Asian Market, it barely reached 2% of videocassette recorder sales in North America and it was worse in Europe!

But what went so wrong with the LaserDisc? To understand that, we first need to understand the consumers in mid-1970.

At that time, the media you could purchase to consume at home were two; print media (newspapers, magazines, books etc) and music. The consumers of mid-1970s were used to buy record albums to play at home, but if someone wanted to view a movie they had only two options; cinema and TV.

credit: flashbak.com

In the mid-1970s if you wanted to see one of the latest films you should go to a cinema. A film wasn’t something that consumers of that time used to see at home over and over again. Only wealthy people had the financial comfort to buy a 16mm projector in order to view a film at home. On the other hand, more than 70% of households in the US had a color TV, but it was only a broadcast technology, you couldn’t choose what to see and when to see it. Movies used to broadcast on TV, with lots of commercial breaks of course, but you viewers never really had the control over what to watch (only which channel to watch).

The consumers of mid-1970s were used to buy record albums to play at home, but if someone wanted to view a movie they had only two options; cinema and TV.

At that time, a lot of companies tried to produce a record player for movies but it didn’t have the best effect on people because, first of all, companies should convince consumers to buy a completely new kind of media and that was something almost foreign to consumers! This was the time when the LaserDisc was first released while, at the same time, were also released Betamax system and VHS.

Betamax and VHS tapes

Both Betamax and VHS were the solution to a huge problem for those who lost an episode of their favorite TV show. They changed the way people used to watch TV. Anyone who had one of these machines could tape their favorite show and watch it whenever they liked while they could use only one tape to do this since each tape could be erased and used again! VCRs at this time period didn’t say anything in their advertisement about pre-recorded tapes you can buy since the production of that kind of tapes were very expensive. So, LaserDisc wasn’t there to compete for these two machines.

LaserDisc was described as a VIDEO turntable that could make pictures better than TV! The only thing you should do was… to buy your video records (and there were 120 movies you could choose from during 1980) and of course a video player machine. The intent of LaserDisc was to sell inexpensive films for homes. LaserDisc could be made pretty easily and in a low cost (the cost of Discovision for a half-hour and an hour-long video was intended to be $5.95 or $9.95 while a brand new film with extras could cost up to $15 when, at the same time, a blank VHS tape used to cost almost $17!) One machine could produce dozens of laserdiscs per hour while a VHS duplicator would take more than an hour for each tape! Even LaserDisc players were cheaper, too!

credit: theregister.co.uk

The non-existent dilemma

The consumer of 1980s had to choose between a brand new machine with stereo sound and an incredible picture but there is not a lot of content you can watch (LaserDisc) and a more mature technology (VCR) which already has an audience that uses it and likes it and, although it is more expensive and also its tapes are, you won’t need more than one tape to record your favorite TV shows and watch it whenever you like. If consumers would choose LaserDisc they would have to be buying a new disc any time they would like to watch a new movie, which might be almost every day! And of course, do the consumers of 1980’s really need the better picture of LaserDisc and the stereo sound? They only had a 19 inches TV set at home and it surely wasn’t stereo!

Now we can see what was the problem! LaserDisc was a tech miracle with bad timing! It was released right after VHS. If it was released before VHS (around 1970 for example), consumers might find more appealing the idea to buy video records in order to watch a film at home (like they used to do with music).

LaserDisc never solved problems, it created more!

The idea of owning a movie was completely new for movie studios. They have never thought about how to sell their content for mass production. LaserDisc tried to start a completely new market category; the home video category and there were a lot of issues that needed a solution before that could happen eg. movie rights.

This problem caused the limited content. If someone would buy a laserdisc player in the 1980’s they had access only to limited content, which caused low sales. And, since there weren’t enough people with LaserDisc players then neither movie studios could make enough sales by selling movie disks, which meant there wasn’t enough content …which makes a sense why a consumer wouldn’t buy a LaserDisc player!

Helen Marouli

Written by

A curious UX Designer and Art Director who aims to build memorable experiences and solve real-world problems.

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