In 1972, three years before Sony’s Betamax would hit the market, and four years before the VHS would become commercially available, Cartrivision—described by its developers as “an experience center” that could “bring you whatever you want to see, whenever you want to see it” —hit the scene at Sears and Wade department stores. Sometimes described as “the Netflix of 1972,” Cartrivision was the first video cassette recorder technology to have pre-recorded tapes available for sale and rental. It was an exceptionally versatile system that could “record and play back color-TV programs, play prerecorded videos, act as a closed-circuit security camera, and even play back home movies recorded on its companion video camera” (Ross Rubin, Fast Company).
In fact, it was often described as a “time machine” by its developers in rhapsodic terms:
“I offer you and your family immediate access to TV programs, your choice of feature-length films, educational and cultural materials, and your own home movies. You can see and hear them in the privacy of your living room any time you desire, without driving anywhere, without fighting crowds, without commercials or other interruptions. I can do this because I’m a time machine, a very special sort of time machine.”
There were a number of quirks that prohibited Cartrivision from becoming the true force to be reckoned with that could dominate the home movie market like the VCR/VHS did.
For instance, many of the tapes sold to play in Cartrivision decks—specifically, the red ones—could not be rewound, and thus could only be played once. In fact, to watch a red cassette a second time, consumers would need to pay the Cartrivision company an additional $3 to $7 (the equivalent of $22 to $53 in 2023) for the privilege of having the tape rewound. Some enterprising renters found ways to rewind the cassettes on their own, but this required busting open the tamper-evident tape cartridges.
Secondly, the price was prohibitive for typical Sears and Wade customers, at a whopping $1600 for one unit (approximately $11,781 in today’s USD). The picture quality that could be recorded and played back on blank Cartrivision tapes was also exceptionally fuzzy, in large part because it only recorded every third frame. And, finally: there was an extremely limited catalogue of only 100-200 film titles that could be purchased outright for Cartrivision systems, and they primarily only included expensive instructional videos that cost $13-40 per tape in 1972 USD, or $95-300 in today’s money. Hollywood releases were typically only available as rentals.
Soon, Cartrivision would compete and lose out to both Betamax and VHS, but Cartrivision’s example provides insight into what the wide world of home video recordings and rentals would later become.
To read more about the doomed effort of Cartrivision, check out the following resources: