So I’ve done a couple of articles on this blog in past months about pop culture, TV and video memories of my childhood, which have turned out to be some of the more fun (and popular) articles of late. For example, I blogged about my favorite “Saturday afternoon movies” on local UHF TV, and I also did this rundown on the spectacular TV miniseries of the late ’70s like Centennial and Shogun. I’m in my mid-40s, so my childhood that I remember encompassed the tail end of the 1970s and especially the decade of the 80s. In this vein I thought I’d trot out a possibly more obscure reference for your consideration, and one that will utterly mystify the young’uns in the audience: CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) format videodiscs. In my family we had piles and piles of these things, which invariably came in thin flat plastic slabs. I can trace the roots of my lifelong love of great movies back to some viewing experiences on these old dinosaurs and the many evenings we spent watching them–after sliding them somewhat awkwardly into our state-of-the-art (for 1981) Hitachi CED VideoDisc Player. This was such a strong and indelible part of my childhood that I’m astonished that so few people now, 35+ years on, have ever even heard of this technology, much less have experienced how it works.
Those who do know about CED discs and talk about them today usually weave them into a narrative of technological–and marketing–failure. A CED disc is pretty simple: it’s basically a phonograph record for video, played with a stylus just like an old-time phonograph (which makes it different than laser discs or CDs, which are played with a laser). The technology was originally developed by RCA way back in 1964, and the powers-that-be realized early on that there was a huge potential market for home video that the device could create and fill. Unfortunately RCA’s timing was pretty crappy. They spent an astonishing 17 years screwing around with perfecting the technology and figuring out how to market it, and by 1981, when the first CED disc players actually went on the market to consumers, the VCR–which used cheaper and also more inferior VHS videotape as its format–was already starting its market ascension. My dad could hardly know it, but the day he brought home that Hitachi player in 1981 it was already obsolete. CED wasn’t even on the field in the epic battle between VHS and Betamax, the home video format war that everybody remembers, which climaxed in 1984 with the extremely unfortunate victory of VHS players, sentencing us to 15 years of fuzzy tapes, jiggling static bands across the screen and the fulsome ritual of rewinding. By 1984 CED discs had already proven an epic marketing flop and were on the way out. The format was discontinued for good in 1986.
Here is a demonstration of how CED videodiscs work, by a modern collector. In reality it was usually less smooth than this!
But this story, mostly about technology and economics, obscures what these nifty little slabs were actually like in our living rooms in the 1980s. Because the discs picked up dust so easily and were susceptible to skipping (just like a dirty phonograph record, except much more sensitive), they came in plastic sleeves, the aforementioned “slabs.” These cases were about a foot square, with rounded corners on the bottom, and perhaps a quarter-inch thick. The video above demonstrates how you put them into the player. Due to the discs being so sensitive, my father strictly forbade us kids from monkeying around with them, such as pressing down the little clips on the top to draw the actual disc out of the case. Nevertheless, the video above overstates both the picture quality and the ease of use. CED discs really did have a bad skipping problem that RCA never solved. And if one of the plastic cases broke, you were basically screwed–no more Jaws, Star Wars or The Wrath of Khan, because Dad sure as hell wasn’t going to spend $40 to replace a disc that you broke by being a dumbass, and because the damn player was so expensive, the “sunk cost fallacy” meant that your house was going to be among the last to get VHS. Incredibly, there was not a VCR in our household until 1985, a full half decade after all my friends had one.
But I do recall CED discs fondly. The technological limits of the discs meant they couldn’t hold more than an hour of video on a side–in the very early days they could only hold 30 minutes–so long movies took two of those plastic slabs. Because they had a lot of real estate on those slabs to work with, RCA papered them with copy which was interesting to read. I remember we had the discs for The Greatest Show on Earth (152 minutes long), and while the back of the first disc had a summary of the movie–which spoiled the ending–the second disc had a “making-of” essay which was actually quite interesting. In this fashion, CED discs sort of had the equivalent of liner notes in a CD, something that VHS tapes didn’t have. The hour-on-a-side format also had interesting implications for TV shows, like Star Trek, whose episodes were packaged as doubles. I remember one of the only Star Trek discs we had in our family had “The Trouble With Tribbles” on one side and “The Tholian Web” on the other. You could forget about owning the entire run of a series on video, as is routine today; RCA just didn’t have the resources to do that.
Because they knew the tech was obsolete, RCA never really put their heart into promoting CED videodiscs. But they still made commercials for them, like this one from 1981, the year our family got one.
The other thing about CED discs is that they were unbelievably heavy in bulk. You couldn’t stack them; you had to store them on-edge, like vinyl record cases. Our family was military which meant we moved a lot, and we moved three or four times between 1981 and 1986. I remember the movers packing up our house, encountering huge rows of CED discs and thinking, “How the hell are we going to pack these?” Eventually they put only a few of them in a large number of boxes with lighter objects. Unpacking the discs when we got to our destination was a highlight of moving for me–if only to make sure the movies had survived the transit. They were surprisingly durable.
Alas, CED videodiscs became one of the more obscure and fast-fading fads of the 1980s. Replaced by VCRs, they were virtually extinct by the end of the decade and only in the hands of buffs and collectors. Once, since the turn of this century, my dad told me that he found the old Hitachi and decided to fire it up for old time’s sake. He said it still worked perfectly even after more than 15 years in cold storage. My movie collection is now in computer video files, having transcended even DVDs; but a part of me still longs for the satisfying click of those plastic slabs going into the player.