So many ways have been used to get music, TV and films into the home over the years, but there is a reason I am going to talk about Sony’s U-Matic here, apart from it being the world’s first video cassette: it is the nexus point of all that has been, and all that remains, in the last fifty years of audio-visual formats, and that isn’t hyperbole either.
U-Matic, named after how the tape was threaded around a large chrome cylinder that contained the record and playback heads, was first shown off as a prototype in October 1969, and went on sale to the public in 1971, beating Philips’ VCR (Video Cassette Recording, also known as N1500) and Avco’s Cartrivision by a year. Home video recorders were already on sale for nearly ten years by then, but these were open-reel devices, not unlike reel-to-reel audio recorders – U-Matic simply encased the tape in an anti-static cassette, making it easier to handle. Like the EIAJ standard agreed among open-reel machine manufacturers, Sony also persuaded other companies, like Panasonic and JVC, to agree to make their own U-Matic machines.
However, for all the ease the format gave the general user, they were still ruinously expensive to buy, approaching the price of a small family car. However, businesses, schools and colleges could afford them, which caused Sony to move their efforts towards them – the “VO” prefix on the machines’ model numbers already stood for “Video Office.” The failure to get U-Matic into homes led Sony to develop the smaller Betamax format, and much has already been written about the format war between it and VHS, ironically developed by JVC, with help from their owner at the time, Panasonic.
Holding a U-Matic tape in your hands defines “industrial.” While a smaller E-180 (3-hour) VHS tape weighs 195g, a 60-minute U-Matic tape weighs 505g, and that is mostly the tape: while VHS runs at a maximum of 1.3 inches per second (PAL region, Short Play), using tape half an inch wide, U-Matic’s three-quarter-inch tape runs at 3.75 inches per second – 60 minutes is all you can get into the case, unless you make the tape itself thinner. However, more tape per second means higher quality, and rather than people at home using them to record TV programmes, the programme makers themselves were using them instead.
Until U-Matic, if you wanted to go out and record a news report, you needed to take a 16 mm film camera with you, which would have to be developed before you could edit it and show it to anyone. This had begun to change slowly – Sony had developed a “Portapak” system that used open-reel tape, but once the U-Matic S Type (for “small”) cassette was developed, Electronic News Gathering (ENG) took off in the United States from the mid-1970s. It did not matter if the picture was less detailed than film, it did not matter if U-Matic had a problem with making the colour red too saturated, and it did not matter if the S Type cassette only held 20 minutes at most – making the news became easier and faster, and did not need as many people to make it work. It took another ten years for ENG to become commonplace in the UK, as unions argued it put too many jobs at risk – the BBC took a film developing unit to the Falklands War – but technology was moving on.
As UK TV news began using ENG, other formats were becoming available, and even Sony had a replacement for U-Matic: while the cheaper and more convenient VHS beat out the technically superior Betamax, Sony simply reworked their second cassette for the professional sector as well, creating Betacam (later Betacam SP, later DigiBeta). While these became the industry standard, Sony still supported U-Matic, because companies still used it: there is evidence that films like “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005), and the Studio Ghibli film “Ponyo” (2008) had clips issues to TV stations in the US using U-Matic tapes. I couldn’t find the date for when Sony stopped supporting U-Matic but, considering they only stopped making Betamax cassettes in March 2016, it can’t have been that long ago.
While U-Matic was central to the development of video, it was to audio as well: before the Compact Disc, video tape was the only way of recording music digitally, and U-Matic was often used for mastering music this way in the 1970s and 80s, once connected to early PCM adaptors. Because the digital signal would be encoded using the number of lines in a TV signal, a combination of the number of lines that make up the picture, and the number of audio samples made up one line, meant that a total of 44,100 samples could be recorded per second, otherwise known as 44.1 kHz – CDs use the same rate for this reason, and practically everything else has since.