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Beta's last stand

Why America’s remaining Beta owners would rather fight than switch to VHS

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The producers of Fox’s controversial Married With Children probably thought there wasn’t a single sensitive minority group they hadn’t yet offended — until the episode of March 26, 1989. In an apparently harmless subplot, the show suggested that family patriarch Al Bundy’s choice of a Beta VCR, instead of the far more popular VHS, cast him as a loser. To find Beta tapes, Al’s wife had to cross state lines, all the way to Bob’s Betas and Bell-Bottoms, only to come back with Oh, Heavenly Dog! ”We are the last family on earth with Beta,” wailed daughter Kelly.

Not quite. To Beta devotee Vance Haemmerle of Tucson, Ariz., those were fighting words. As president of the Betaphile Club, a group dedicated to preserving the beleaguered format, he fired off a column in his next newsletter, urging the club’s 2,000 members to direct their protests to Fox (”a network,” he noted darkly, ”which doesn’t need enemies”). Pummeled with letters from hot-tempered Beta supporters, Fox finally responded with a conciliatory note and promised to keep this ”well-meant criticism” in mind.

That battle is over, but a year later the video-format war goes on — at least in the hearts and minds of the passionate believers who call themselves Betaphiles. Introduced by Sony in 1975, Betamax was the original home video format. By the early ’80s, however, Beta had been largely pushed aside by VHS, which offered longer playing times, greater availability of tapes, and, Betaphiles insist, a visibly cruder picture.

Today, Beta cassettes make up less than 5 percent of all prerecorded tapes, and Beta VCR sales are ”so negligible as to be uncountable,” says Robert Gerson, editorial director of the trade journal This Week in Consumer Electronics. Of the more than 60 million VCRs now in American homes, over 95 percent are VHS. Although Sony still makes a handful of Beta decks, the company tacitly conceded defeat in 1988 when it announced it would manufacture VHS VCRs as well. ”That was the end of the ball game,” Gerson says. ”It’s finished.”

For loyal Beta followers, Sony’s move to VHS came as a rude shock. As after any tragedy, many remember precisely where they were when they heard the chilling news. ”I was driving from the airport to Tucson and I heard it on the radio,” recalls Haemmerle. ”I felt betrayed, the way the Communists in East Germany must feel.” While millions of former Beta owners have converted to VHS, the Beta faithful would rather fight than switch. They cling to the format with a nearly irrational fervor, comparing their plight, as Haemmerle does in all seriousness, to that of ”a racial minority in 19th-century America, or current South Africa.”

For Sony, these Beta absolutists are a mixed blessing. They’re good customers, but they scream like a child with a new baby brother whenever Sony makes a move that might undermine their format. ”The degree of identity people have with that box is powerful,” Sony Communications Director Stephen Burke says diplomatically. ”People don’t feel that way about their microwaves.”

For true Betaphiles, dedidcation to their chosen format is more than a matter of convenience — it’s a cause. To them Beta represents quality in a world that too often rewards mediocrity. But, like so much in the world of Beta, the format’s quality edge over VHS is largely in the past. Adherents note that the early Beta VCRs offered a visibly better picture, along with smoother fast-forward, rewind, and freeze-frame performance than VHS. And most major improvements in VCR technology, such as Hi-Fi sound, arrived first in Beta. Today, however, all but the most passionate Beta boosters admit that VHS has long since caught up.

Still, the Betaphiles fight on — it’s the principle of the thing. ”I won’t be forced to buy an inferior machine because the rest of the people just don’t care,” Haemmerle says. And sticking to Beta isn’t just about sharper images — it’s about sharper self-images. ”I’m glad somebody finally established a club for all of the intelligent people who own Beta VCRs,” a 15-year-old Betaphile writes in Haemmerle’s mad-as-hell newsletter, The Betaphile Recorder. He goes on to say he’s saving up for a SuperBeta VCR and camcorder. ”They’re more important to me now than a car.” The club’s members love to send in alternative acronyms for VHS, such as ”Very Hard to See” or ”Very Highly Suspect.”

While most video stores have been unloading Beta cassettes like week-old fish, a handful — mostly run by Betaphiles — have tried to fight back by carrying only Beta. At the Beta & More Video store in Chanute, Kan. (pop. 10,506), owner Roger Brown says: ”We’ll keep the doors open as long as people are willing to rent Beta.” And, because of a quirk of economics in his region, that may be a while.

In the early ’80s, Chanute was a small oil-boom town and many of the newly flush residents equipped their houses with shiny new Betamaxes. Then, crunch. Oil prices and Chanute’s economy plummeted just as VHS was replacing Beta in America. ”A lot of people felt ripped off because they had these Beta machines and nothing to watch,” Brown says, ”and we couldn’t afford to trade for a VHS.”

Brown and his wife, Barbara, decided to use $12,000 inherited from her father to open Beta & More. With 135 members and 1,100 titles, the Browns use their store as a pulpit where they preach the virtues of Beta. They counsel their flock to drag their Beta recorders out of the closet, and they’ve pulled in a few converts by selling overhauled decks. Still, keeping the faith isn’t cheap; the Browns both have full-time jobs aside from the store, and they’ve yet to keep any revenues for themselves.

Another tribulation for Betaphiles is the growing shortage of prerecorded Beta tapes. Since less than 18 percent of video stores now stock Beta (even fewer carry blank Beta tapes), Beta falls low on wholesalers’ priorities. Lesser-known titles, as well as how-to tapes and music videos, are rarely released on Beta. And while most major movies are still produced in the format, the Browns often have to dig for them. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure proved to be an especially elusive tape, but Brown was determined. ”We just picked up the phone and didn’t put it down until we found it,” he says.

When video companies do decide to bypass Beta, the Betaphiles are quick to protest. They were particularly incensed last year when RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video skipped Beta in its release of the restored Lawrence of Arabia. Barraged with complaints, the company’s Executive Vice President, Paul Culberg, finally decided to distribute the movie on Beta. Many of those tapes still haven’t sold, Culberg complains. ”No matter how much they scream, Betaphiles don’t buy in any quantity,” he says.

In time, the video industry will probably learn to ignore the howls of injured Betaphiles, but Chanute’s leading Beta believer pays no mind to Hollywood’s indifference. ”I found out they weren’t going to release The Adventures of Milo & Otis on Beta,” Brown says, ”so I just picked up my handy little phone and I told somebody at RCA/Columbia: ‘You don’t know what people want to watch. You only think you do.’ ” The company will ”probably” relent and release Milo & Otis on Beta as well, Culberg says with a sigh.

Beta may be fading, but it’s hard to keep a good Betaphile down. ”If I get a phone number, I’m going to make my voice heard,” Brown says. ”That song by Twisted Sister, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ that’s my theme song right now.”