Posted on February 9, 2023 in Technology

Cartrivision – Another Attempt to Curtail Home-Viewing

Cartrivision was the very first tape system to offer home rentals. It was introduced back in 1972, and didn’t see very much mainstream success – you had to buy an entire TV to play the tapes, and some of the tapes were not rewindable.

You may have actually seen them before, in the cliff notes of a documentary: the 1973 NBA Game 5 Finals were recorded, but somehow every other recording method except for a Cartrivision tape failed or was lost, so retrieving the information stored on the tape became the obsession of the documentarian. The documentary even won an award.

What makes Cartrivision so special that just recovering one warranted a documentary?

This Was Super Expensive

As mentioned before, the Cartrivision player came built into a TV, and TVs were already expensive. The result was a device that cost the equivalent of a decent used car (about 1,300$ in early 1970s money, or about 8,000$ today). This, understandably, meant that the market for these devices was already kind of niche. But wait, there’s more! As an added expense, most of the fictional stories available for Cartrivision devices were rental-only, and only non-fiction could be purchased to own. This meant you couldn’t build a catalogue of fictional stories for home use after you made this huge investment for the machine. Why not just ‘keep’ them, you may ask?

Because the Cartrivision tapes came with a built-in mechanism that prevented home machines from rewinding the rental tapes! Rental tapes, much like Flexplay discs, were denoted by a red cartridge. Unlike Flexplay, you could only play them once. You could pause them, but never go back. The movie studios were worried that Cartrivision could disrupt the movie theater market, and as such the Cartrivision people had to be careful not to make things too convenient to avoid spooking the people providing them their IPs. They were the very first, after all.

Perhaps You Went Too Far

The company discontinued their Cartrivision manufacturing after a little over a year, thanks to poor sales. Users generally don’t want to pay twice for something, and the red tapes were just not convenient enough to warrant buying a specific (and very expensive) TV for a lot of families. Cartrivision then liquidated their stock, but a large number of tapes were destroyed thanks to humidity in one of their warehouses, making them even harder to find today. Cartrivision TVs were suddenly cheap enough for tinkerers to buy and modify themselves, and many did – there are few or no original, mint-condition Cartrivision TVs on the market that aren’t also broken.

Additionally, Cartrivision tapes come in a strange size, even though the tape itself remains fairly standard. They were custom-made for one specific machine, so they were allowed to be weird in as many ways as they wanted, but as a result they are incredibly finicky to work with if you don’t have one of Catrivision’s proprietary watching machines. If you didn’t get a Cartrivision during their liquidation sale, you’d have no reason to buy and preserve their proprietary tapes.

Speaking of the tapes, the company started selling the red tapes, but not the machine they used to rewind them. There were less to start with, anyway. Home Cartrivision fans had to take apart the cartridge and physically rewind the tape themselves to watch their content. Magnetic tape is fragile, so this would never be a permanent fix, and it came with the disadvantage of damaging the art on the box to reach hidden screws that held the case together. Even untouched ones degrade over time in ideal conditions, getting sticky and brittle inside the case, which makes them unplayable. There are, effectively, no working Cartrivision tapes left. Not without a lot of finagling. The people who rescued the NBA game ended up trying a bunch of things from freezing the tape to baking it and scrubbing it with special cleaners, and after everything they had to do quite a bit of digital touchup with a computer even after they got it to play – anything less profitable or historic recorded to Cartrivision tapes alone may very well be lost to time.

Just like Flexplay, the red plastic left behind by Cartrivision is a warning: if it’s not better than what’s already out there, customers aren’t going to go for it.