“What’s Inside the Little Box?”: Betamax Sales Demo, 1977

 Exhibit / February 20, 2020 

Object Name: Betamax sales training video
Maker and Year: National Training Systems, Inc., 1977
Object Type: Training video
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Sony’s first Betamax VCR was the SL-6200, and it was housed in a teak wood cabinet with a 19″ Trinitron TV. The LV-1901 console, as the package deal was called, was released in Japan in May 1975 and debuted in the US that November. Price: between $2,295 and $2,495. Weight? Really fucking heavy. The VCR was sold separately (for about $1,295) starting in 1976, but department stores and consumer electronics outlets were left with the onerous task of unloading the first generation beasts loitering in their stock rooms and warehouses (the last 20 seconds of Raiders of the Lost Ark come to mind). Sony provided a “demonstration checklist” designed to help sales teams explain the entirely new concept of “recording one program while watching another” and “[recording] a program without even being there,” and they paid a company called National Training Systems, Inc. to help sales teams convince customers to shell out what amounted to the cost of a new Toyota Corolla.

Let’s start with the decor. The LV-1901 squats on a circular island of worn beige shag, which matches the implacable earth tones of everything else in the faux showroom, including the uneasy Muzak and the garb of our stereotypically unctuous salesmen—except for the plentiful ferns, which served as a kind of middle-class status signifier in ’70s and early ’80s America, similar to the aspidistra in prewar and postwar Britain. Although the sleek white pedestals and open cubes propping up Sony’s various TVs and stereos add something of a contemporary touch, the vibe is mostly that of the local, reliably down-home Sears. It’s certainly not the futuristic flavor served up in Sony’s 1975 promotional video introducing the LV-1901, where we see the monolith floating in star-twinkling space, kaleidoscopic video synthesizer effects, and lots of dry ice smoke. “The Sony Betamax,” intones a reverb-treated voice. “Its only purpose is to serve you.” And: “You’ll be free of the restrictions of time. Its uses are defined only by the limits of your imagination.”

Back on earth, our two salesman teasingly quibble and wink about who’s going to “role play” as the customer, and I half expected a porn film to break out. The sales pitch promises that the Betamax is “easy to use,” extolls “the great beauty of videotape” (blank Betamax tapes recorded a max of 60 minutes and cost almost $20), and endlessly reminds us that the LV-1901 (not to be confused with LV-426) comes with “dual tuners.” Although Betamax lost the format war precisely because Sony banked on consumers paying more for the perceived higher quality of the brand name, it holds a formative place in my media-chomping career. When the video store I worked at closed in 1987 or 1988, the magnanimous owner gifted me a used Betamax VCR, probably the SL-8200, along with a Beta movie of my choice. So I heaved the old bastard home and watched Enter the Ninja on it five or six times before it became my very own piece of antique furniture: comforting in its immovability, beautifully useless.

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