The History of Video - Historical Showdown

What is past, is prologue. In life, truer words were never spoken. In video production, not so much. However, where we came from is as important as where we are going. Let’s take a look at some instances where we as a media society learned from what didn’t work, and compare it to what we have today. For only in doing so, dear videographer, can we understand where we are headed tomorrow.

What Didn’t Work: CBS Color system

In 1950, the FCC approved a color television system that would have included a color wheel spinning inside your television. It would have had to spin perfectly in sync with the one at the transmission source. While this system actually would have offered more accurate color reproduction than the system we ended up with, it would have been incompatible with all the black and white TVs sold to that point.

Why It Failed:
Tests of the new system failed to spark public interest. Not surprising when you consider not one household had a television capable of receiving the picture. Manufacturers at the time had absolutely no interest in producing proposed hybrid TVs meant to ease transition to the new format. Meanwhile, RCA had continued to refine its own system, fully backwards compatible, which became the NTSC color standard we all know and…er…sometimes loved.


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What We Have Today:
While it’s easy to see why the RCA system was eventually accepted, the inaccurate color reproduction issue, along with other quirks have caused years of headaches for many a video professional. The recent transition to the ATSC color system and digital transmission has been welcomed as a refreshing change, giving hope to many that there is a color accurate light at the end of the tunnel.

Little Known Facts:
Can you imagine actually having a television based on mechanical parts? Would oiling the television have become commonplace? Oddly enough this system was used for decades by NASA for the space program.

What Didn’t Work: Closed box edit systems

In the beginning, there was razor blades and tape. With the advent of controllable tape decks came linear edit systems. Then a group of pioneers harnessed the power of the computer, giving way to non-linear edit systems, and the world saw that it was good. Avid, Premiere and Media 100 gave rise to a whole new level of quality, style and frustration. While these programs were grand sights to behold, they suffered from bugs and glitches, due not only to the infancy of the technology, but to the diverse equipment scattered throughout the editing world. Enter the “closed box edit system”. These machines were not multifunction computers, but were single function systems, that only needed themselves to operate. Brands like the Stratosphere and Casablanca were released upon the world to drive out the non-conformist edit systems.

Why it Failed:
This system hasn’t completely failed yet. While these machines worked well and for the most part achieved the stability sought, they were also rather inflexible. Closed box systems were all but incapable of integration with independent programs like After Effects, unless designed to be so from the start. They also took up the same amount of room as a full computer workstation, yet people still needed a computer anyway to work with these other programs. Further, major updates were few and far between and usually entailed hardware replacement. So the money that might have been saved going with a closed system was mitigated. This coupled with the speed at which computer-based systems could pump out software updates, thus stabilizing their systems, could not be kept up with. They are still used mostly in school systems where the students can’t go onto the internet during use.

What We Have Today:
While it’s all but impossible to even find an Internet mention of the Stratosphere or other systems, the Casablanca remains in production. With new models released less than a year ago, they still attract a good amount of users in the prosumer and niche markets, primarily because they offer a superior class of editing capability while still being simple enough to be understood by those outside of the video industry. Clearly there is still a place for these systems in a world dominated by Final Cut Pro, Avid, Premiere Pro, and Vegas, but closed box edit systems are fading into the background, becoming a blip in history.

Little Known Facts:
While most people remember the Avid as the first commercially widespread non-linear edit system, it was not by any means the first non-linear editor. Early non-linear editing machines were actually systems composed of multiple identical sources that could be played back in any order. Probably the best known example of this was Lucasfilm’s EditDroid. More of a stepping stone than a failure, this system introduced many concepts used in most contemporary edit systems.

What Didn’t Work: Betamax

We all know the story of how two major formats competed for a place in homes across the world. We also know that VHS quickly won the war. What’s interesting is that Betamax was the first on the scene, and was a superior quality product in many ways. So what happened?

Why It Failed:
Essentially, higher pricing drove most consumers to adopt the lesser quality of VHS. Additionally, a custom video signal in their early camcorders meant Betamax video could not be played back in the field. Combine this with a very restrictive record-time-per-tape and you’ve got key elements that ensured this system never achieved legendary status (well not the way it was meant to anyway).

What We Have Today:
Every time my VHS machine ate a tape, I wondered what could have been. Would Betamax have given me such heartache? All I know is I had a hard time finding enough storage room for my library of 300+ VHS tapes. With Betamax, I would have had to rent a storage facility. I know I’m not alone when I say how thankful I am for how small today’s recordable media is.

Little Known Facts:
The Laser Disc, the leading format pushed as the logical successor to these home systems never quite caught on anywhere outside of Southeast Asia (where it was huge, by the way). Discs were more expensive than most wanted to spend and easily damaged. Personally, I think they also reminded consumers too much of LP records, which in light of the new CD format, everyone was really trying to forget. And they never did work out that home recording Laser Disc, did they?

What Didn’t Work: HD-DVD / Blu-ray

In the most recent consumer video format war, Blu-ray and HD-DVD battled it out for the right to supplant DVD in homes around the world. Although released first, HD-DVD withered quicker than a tropical chameleon in the Mojave Desert.

Why It Failed:
Historians will say that the dual format split kept initial sales from spiking, thus prices remained stratospheric for a long time. They’ll also tell you that the majority of the television and movie distributors, as well as a wide range of developers all interested in better copy protection, threw their support behind the latecomer, Blu-ray. However, we know the truth, don’t we? The truth is, HD-DVD failed, because it has too many syllables. It takes too long to say. Blu-ray is a much more trendy name, a name that simply appeals to consumers and rolls off the tongue during conversation. Like a rose, HD-DVD just didn’t “smell” as sweet.

What We Have Today:
Yet another format war seems to have left a bad taste in consumer’s mouths, and there have been conflicting numbers as to its adoption rate. Some analysts report a growth faster than that of DVD, and yet sales of players and discs are still lower than expected (propaganda?). DVD/Blu-ray combo players are rare, meaning consumers must add yet another box to their A/V setup; the exact opposite of what most want to do. Player prices have recently fallen into a range low enough for consumers to invest, yet discs remain too costly to replace the library yet again. The industry has responded by distributing combo discs, or DVD/Blu-ray DVD/Blu-ray combination packages to ease the transition. While there is no doubt that Blu-ray will continue to expand, streaming distribution and the belief by many that DVD is “good enough” is causing many people to hold off until the next media format comes along.

Little Known Facts:
The one ace-in-the-hole for Blu-ray is how perfectly capable it is of handling the 3D content now being pushed by the industry. What remains to be seen is if anyone really cares about 3D – I guess that’s for the next historical look!

What Didn’t Work: Sony MiniDisc

When DAT tapes were first introduced, they were intended for the home user as a digital replacement to audio cassettes. Instead, they ended up as the brief, but much adored successor to reel-to-reel professional recording systems, like the Nagra. Enter Sony’s next attempt, the MiniDisc. A magnetic/optical hybrid system, it offered re-writable, random access storage on a disc less than three inches across. The players were exceptionally small, making hand-held units common.

Why It Failed:
Simply put, the product never found a home. Additionally, it was marketed primarily for the consumer. Unfortunately for MiniDisc, CDs were already too firmly entrenched there. While it did see traction in the professional realm, Sony was happy with the money they were making with DATs. Thus, it was never adequately promoted as a professional system, virtually ignoring the people who would have most appreciated its form factor and extended feature set.

What We Have Today:
Even if Sony had realized the potential of what they had in their hands, the product probably would have still been short-lived. The consumer world leaped straight from Walkmans and Discmans to MP3 players, and the film industry leaped straight to hard drive recording.

Little Known Facts:
While few people remember that you could once buy pre-recorded albums on MiniDisc straight from the record companies, one of the format’s greatest in-roads was in event recording. Being highly reliable, with a small form factor, they were perfect for location recording. Some MiniDisc models were also capable of recording timecode, and thus frame-accurate syncing. This made them ideal as a format easily translatable to CD, MP3 and as a backup for the cameras recording the event.

What Didn’t Work: The Amiga Toaster

Well, it’s a misnomer to say this system “didn’t work”. In fact, it was capable of unparalleled computer-controlled video production, editing, compositing, 3D graphics, and integration long before other companies even knew that’s what these processes were called.

Why It Failed:
Well, it didn’t really. The company that built it failed. Commodore Business Machines declared bankruptcy in 1994. After years of internal struggles, price wars, and a lack of leadership, the Amiga was a little too late to save the company as a whole. The machine itself became somewhat of a treasure in video production circles, and revivals of the system have been attempted many times.

What We Have Today:
Though not the same, the Amiga computer brand has re-appeared today as a line of high-end PCs. The “Video Toaster” – the element of the computer that allowed television production to become a stand-alone product – has since evolved into Newtek’s “Tricaster” system. LightWave 3D, Amiga’s graphics creation and rendering system is still alive as well, and has been used on many shows and movies.

Little Known Facts:
A pioneer of desktop post-production, Amiga computers were used as late as 1993 on popular television shows like SeaQuest DSV and the groundbreaking Babylon 5. One of the keys to its abilities as a computer video system was its ability to sync, or genlock components together so they all worked with the same timing. This was possible mainly because the processing chip itself ran at a speed that was analogous to a TV’s frame rate.

Love Video History?

Want more stats and facts about video history? Read our video history story – A Quarter of a Century – Videomaker‘s Silver Anniversary.

Sidebar: Wild, Wacky, and What Were They Thinking?

The Cameraman – (Pictured) A robotic camera support that uses VHF and Infrared to track the subject! Great for ENG and lone-wolf producers, but reportedly very noisy.

DVDs that Expire – DivX, Flexplay, DVD-D, give us a break!

DVD Audio – You know that Audio TS folder on your DVDs? It was for this abandoned format.

EVR – Visual frames (like film) on a magnetic medium. We’d still need Moviolas!

700mhz wireless mics – Toss out all that useful, expensive audio gear you saved so hard for and carefully protected. Thanks FCC!

Videophones – Now we have Face Chat. For decades everyone wanted it, now no one uses it.

Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today’s advanced manipulation and compositing tools.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.


  1. Don’t confuse Commodore with NewTek, different companies. Commodore was doing well with Amiga and on track in the early 90s. They employed some fantastic developers and unfortunately some fantastically bad business managers. They were still going strong with the introduction of the Amiga3000 in 91 but things faltered after that and they lost their edge.

    NewTek was a 3rd party developer that made the Video Toaster Flyer cards for Amiga computers. NewTek made the Toaster/Flyer, Commodore made the host computer. After Commodore failed in 94, NewTek carried onward, moving to intel based boxes. NewTek still provides support for loyal Amiga Toaster/Flyer users.

    BTW, don’t forget to plug Max Headroom along with B5 & SQDSV.

    Prior to the Casablanca. MacroSystems was also an Amiga 3rd party developer. They produced a variety of hardware add-ons. Their 16bit VLab-Motion video card and Toccata audio card couple with MovieShop software became their first step into the NLE world.

    When Commodore went belly-up, MacroSystems developed the 32bit DraCo Vision NLE, a more professional evolution of their earlier work. It still ran the AmigaOS but on custom hardware. Unlimited audio/video tracks. Composite/Y-C/Component/Firewire I/O. Machine Control. Price tagged around 15G, it proved to be too expensive for many. Then came their much lower cost, watered down, closed box Casablanca, affectionately known as the Cassie Classic now. The first Casablancas ran a modified version of the AmigaOS on Motorola 68040 or 68060 processors, later it moved to Intel based hardware.

    Today there is a company using the Commodore name to market PCs using Amiga emulation. But this isn’t the official direction of Amiga development. After Commodore’s collapse, Amiga development carried on slowly and changed hands many times. The current work is being helmed by Hyperion Entertainment (official developer of AmigaOS4) and AEO Technology (developer of the new X1000 PPC based Amiga).

    For a great book on Commodore history, get a copy of:
    “Commodore: A Company on the Edge” by Brian Bagnall
    ISBN-13: 9780973864960
    ISBN: 0973864966

  2. It’s great to touch bases with fellow Commodore fans! I still treasure my C-64’s and even boot them up once in a while. I used it even into college to write papers.

    Though I was in my early teens when it all went down, I still remember being disheartened that my favorite computer company seemed to just disappear on me. I wanted an Amiga sooooo bad. Finally got to use one in college. The toaster was still in the “high-end” edit suite. Once I got past bootstrap it was a phenominal machine.

    I am aware that Amiga and the toaster board were two separate companies, however length of article and other restraints forced me to try to “simplify” things a bit. This is after all a video technology article, not a Commodore article. I had to summarize the history of all of the technologies in just a few sentences, so a good amount of detail in each case was put to the side. They were marketed and distributed together after all. Back then you couldn’t get a Toaster by itself.

    (I’m sure you know well that “History of the Amiga” series out there… well worth a look).

    Dave, I have to admit you make a good case with the DVD functionality built in to Blu-ray players these days. That comment should have been restricted to the early systems (It really took a long time for dual players to show up, especially early tech previews of blue laser technology had several proposals of how to integrate both systems.)

    Still, as many people as I know love blu-ray, I know 5 that don’t even have a player, many of them have said that they just plain refuse to get one. DVD was the world’s saviour from VHS, and the blue media discs have just failed to capture that spirit. As I said in the article (and you say below), yes the product will continue to grow, but don’t be surprised if, when the next format comes out, DVD’s are still on the shelves next to blu-ray. It has not fully replaced DVD’s like DVD’s did to VHS, and it bothers people that the corps. couldn’t find a solution to their conflicts. In that sense, I maintain that it failed.

    Thank you both for the extra Commodore/Newtek info here, it’s information people should know about something that was so ahead of its time.

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