Bernard Bennetto's Video Pages - History


In the late sixties, the first video recorders appeared in this country. They were very large, used 'open reels' of 2" tape as opposed to cassettes and offered black and white and limited recording time. These machines, which were devised with the efforts of Ray Dolby (of hi-fi fame) by the AMPEX Corporation of America, were very expensive and were intended for use by the professional to make permanent records of a TV programmes. This became the broadcasting standard and was known as Quadruplex. Sony introduced a further professional cassette based standard which was known as U-matic and which was to emerge as both an education and training standard.


However, it was not until the mid seventies that the first domestic recorders became available which offered colour, a reasonable recording period and a 'cassette' system for a reasonable price. Originally, apart from laser discs, three standards were offered. This included the early Philips VCR 1500 standard, the Sony Betamax and VHS. The early Philips standard was two sided and had a limited playback time of a maximum of one hour per side. Since most movies run for more than one hour, the only players in this early market for off-screen recording and for pre-recorded videos were the Betamax and VHS. Modifications to the Philips VCR 1500 system enabled a long play facility to be introduced by Philips (the VCR-LP 1700 standard) and by Grundig (the SVR standard) but they never effectively competed with the other two standards.

In late 1978 the television rental companies, such as Granada and Radio Rentals, offered the first VHS video recorders for rental. The blank tapes cost £15 and offered a maximum of three hours playback time. A movie buff could now start building a 'do it yourself' collection from movies being shown on television and, at the same point in time, the first distribution companies emerged which offered pre-recorded films on video. The five most notable were the three independents, Precision, Hokushin and Intervision, and the two majors Magnetic Video (a subsidiary of 20th Century-Fox) and CIC.


The pre-recorded videos were either expensive or for rental only. Prices for sale were between £50 and £100 or, where they could only be rented from the distributor, they were offered at so much per week or so much per loan. Normally they cost between £5 and £8 for a three day loan but the early Intervision titles were only available on a very complicated overnight basis. Taking their lead from the US format for packaging, these titles were normally released in cardboard slipcases. The titles were normally available in both VHS and Betamax formats.

As a result of these rather high prices, the first video rental shops started to appear in 1980 (although the earliest known video rental shops opened in 1978). These shops were 'fed' by these early classic titles and by films coming off general release eg. Blade Runner, Blue Brothers. They acted as mediators between distributor and the public and so reduced the price to the public. However, there was also a considerable amount of material that was 'pirated'. In 1982 'ET' was unofficially available from many video rental shops. Since the cardboard slipcase did not lend itself to easy display or repeated handling, the cardboard slipcases had now been dropped in favour of a large soft box format. Warner were to use this format for some considerable time before being forced to adopt the rigid boxes.


By the end of 1981, movie renting and watching was a national pastime and over a million video recorders had now been sold or rented. However, the format wars did not move into gear until 1982. Philips and Grundig attempted to displace the pre-eminence of VHS and Betamax with the video laser disk and a totally new tape standard, the Philipps VCC Video 2000 standard. This totally displaced the earlier Philips 1500 and 1700 and Grundig SVR systems. Four hours were available without requiring the tape to be turned over. However, driven by the existing pre-eminence of VHS in the US market and the adoption of VHS equipment for rental by the main UK TV rental companies, VHS was beginning to emerge as the accepted standard.


In 1982, sell through titles of classics began to appear on video. MGM introduced its classic collection at about £25 a title. These were released in a rigid large format box which has now become the standard dealer box. However, CIC were still using a rigid small format box for several years. Moreover, certain distributors such as Warners and Disney still continued to offer many titles on a rental only basis. Sell through was titles were not, however, widely available and were relatively expensive.


In 1984, an Act of Parliament was enacted which introduced copyright protection for video distributors and a film certification scheme for videos which was based on the then cinema release system. In 1985 the law was introduced into the video shops. It required each certified video release to bear a certification sticker on the top cover or the sticky identification label of the videocassette and the videocassette case to bear stickers on the printed packaging of the front, the spine and the back of the jacket. On the grounds of changes in taste and attitude and on the easier accessibility of videotapes by the underage, the certificate awarded for the cut of the theatrical release could not be considered as the default certificate and therefore appropriate for video release. Therefore, since every release needed to be re-submitted, certain releases were not re-submitted for video certification. Notably 'The Exorcist' on Warner, 'Death Wish' on CIC and 'Straw Dogs' on Guild were all considered inappropriate by their distributors and so were no longer available to rent. Other titles, notably 'Enter the Dragon', were only available in a specially cut edition. Other titles such as 'Quest for Fire' on Fox and 'Sugarland Express' on CIC, till now, have not been considered worthy of re-release since this will involve the overhead of video certification.


1986 marked the end of the road for the Betamax standard. The requirement to re-issue films with new certification details on the printed packaging meant that many distributors decided to not release the films in both formats. Some shops started to sell off their Betamax stock and the stock which had not been certified by the distributor. This was, however, very limited. Moreover, very rarely was VHS stock sold on since the sale of the Beta stock made space available for newer VHS titles.

It was not until 1988 that video shops started to go out of business and ex-rental titles started to appear. Normally these titles could only be bought through the local store or off the market stalls. The appearance of big chains such as Ritz and the later appearance of the video superstores such as Blockbuster and Titles in 1990 hastened the demise of the specialised small video store and provided a source of ex-rental titles.


Until 1985, sell-through titles were rare and relatively expensive. However, Channel 5 and the Video Collection began to release a large number of titles at approximately £6 per title but it was not until 1988, that the so called sell-through titles started to appear on a very large scale. The prices were originally to vary between £5 and £10. The very first specialised sell-through shops also started to appear although it was the market stalls which provided the best source of titles for the serious collector. The demise of Parkfield also provided a mine of very cheap titles. Parkfield had acquired the rights to hundreds of titles and had them duplicated in large numbers. In 1990 they entered liquidation and the market was flooded with cheap sell through titles which sold for £2, £3 and £4. Many titles were no doubt bought and then copied over since they were selling as cheaply as blank tape.


1991 saw the recession really beginning to bite. VAT was increased and the distributors took the opportunity to increase prices to £5.99 for budget titles and between £10.99 and £14.99 for other titles. While the price of sell-through titles rose, the ex-rentals prices dropped because the video stores needed to provide additional shelf space and started to have clear outs. Car boot sales began to increase in popularity and provided a further source of titles.

The following two years saw the recession biting. Video rental shops which were established in the early eighties were experiencing cash flow difficulties and were willing to sell stock and/or closing down. Large chains, such as Ritz, were being taken over by larger chains, such as Blockbuster, and were rationalising their stock. Moreover, because distributors had overestimated the market for certain titles, they sold these surplus copies to specialist retailing companies. These companies were starting to exploit the equivalent of the book 'remainder' market. They offered what are now considered 'rarities' for £2.99. It was during this period that the serious collector began to really develop a substantial collection.


Sell through sales have now totally established themselves. The collector is recognised and their needs catered to. This includes offering the collector a variety of incentives to acquire a previously released video. These incentives includes specialist over-sized glossy packaging for the video, package inserts bearing posters or lobby material, specialist cuts of previously released material, copies of the original cinema trailers, widescreen editions and re-digitised masters.

Last Updated: 30th July 1996
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© Bernard W Bennetto 1996