The video revolution is bloodless; you arm yourself for it with toys. Among the latest of these is the videodisc machine, and happy the family that finds one under a tree in the living room -- but maybe happy for only a little while. Maybe not so much happy as momentarily distracted.
Early reports on the doodads, currently being hawked heavily in department and TV stores, indicate it may be better to put off making the investment until bugs are worked out and more program material is available. "They're having a lot of trouble" with the videodisc machines sold so far, says a salesman at an area TV dealer.
The videodisc machine is like a record player that plays pictures as well as sounds. You hook it up to a TV set and play back pre-recorded, shiny metallic discs that spin around very rapidly. Most of the discs currently available are movies like "Jaws" and "Smokey and the Bandit" from MCA-Universal and the machines cost $700 or $800.
But one key problem with the videodisc, as with videocassette recorders, is knowing which kind to buy, since there are going to be at least three competing formats within the year and all are incompatible with each other. RCA will introduce its Selectavision system in March, and while the machine will sell for "under $500" according to RCA (that presumably means $499.95 list), a disc that can be played on a Pioneer or a Magnavox, two systems now available in many cities, including Washington.
Pioneer and Magnavox are both laser-beam systems in which no stylus actually touches the disc as it plays. But RCA's uses a stylus more like that of a conventional record player. RCA discs will not have stereophonic sound capability, and this may be a handicap once record companies start putting out video as well as audio with new releases.
In addition, the insider says, even the systems now available have their pesky imperfections, with defective discs, a serious problem. Returns of the MCA videodiscs have run high at some stores, according to industry rumor, but Jim Fiedler, president of MCA's videodisc division, says from Los Angeles that "the return rate on a national average has been under 10 percent."
Fiedler concedes the videodisc players aren't selling like hotcakes -- or the discs themselves like softcakes (we're living in a hardware/software age). "Oh, they're not flying out the doors of the dealerships," he says. "But nothing's flying out the doors. We're affected by the economy."
Videodiscs can do cute things. You can stop the picture and advance it frame by frame. You can reverse it, fast forward it, and do almost everything but add a new jiggle to "Charlie's Angels." But you can do most of those same things on a state-of-the-art videocassette recorder and you can do one thing more: record programs off the air. You can't record anything on a videodisc machine.
So the videocassette recorder remains the most sensible luxury to soup up a TV set. Videodiscs do provide much sharper pictures, and movies on disc cost between $15 and $25, compared to from $40 to $60 (more for porno) on tape. But you're limited to what's available on the market. You can only play things back, and so far, the available library is not very enormous; MCA has fewer than 200 titles now available.
Just in time for the holidays, some sterling new attractions have appeared on videocassettes. MGM and CBS have teamed up for the release of about a dozen features from the MGM library, including such blockbusters as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Wizard of Oz" and "A Night at the Opera" -- though NOT, for now, such classics as "Gone With the Wind" or "North by Northwest."
I bought a copy of the 1951 Oscar-winning musical "An American in Paris." The picture quality is strikingly good; the film looks much better than it does when shown by local TV stations, and of course it hasn't been butchered into imbecility. It was clearly worth the roughly $60 it cost.
However, in the upper left-hand corner of the picture, distractingly enough, one can see a long, computerized serial number, which often intrudes on scenes from the film. A spokesman for CBS/MGM said from New York that this number is called a "snid"; it's another of the innumerable anti-piracy devices used to prevent unlawful duplication of the tapes. For this the honest videophile must suffer, though the spokesman claimed the snid is only visible on some TV sets.
You can call them up and say, "Get that snid off my set," and it won't do any good at all.
MCA Home Video recently began marketing the first 3-D cassettes; two merry monster movies from the '50s, "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "It Came From Outer Space." Each comes with several pairs of glasses to make 3-D parties possible. Unfortunately, the copy of "Creature" I shelled out almost 70 bucks for is only 3-D some of the time; it keeps shifting from 2-D to 3-D and is unwatchable.
When I tried to return it, though, a surly and unfriendly video dealer in the suburbs told me it was my tough luck and that I probably hadn't adjusted my TV set correctly. Did this guy know who he was talking to?Why, I was adjusting TV sets before he was -- er, for a long time. That's one of the problems, though, with home video; some places that specialize in it tend to be on the indecorous side.
Now on the indisputably respectable side, or so the image goes, Walt Disney Productions is finally, if tentatively, getting into the home video market. So far, however, the company has not released any of the films people would really truly want -- the animated classics like "Snow White" or "Pinocchio." Instead, just inflated space junk like "The Black Hole" and oft-seen live-action adventures like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." A few cartoon compilations are available, but to judge from the one I bought, "Kids Is Kids," these are Mouska-rip-offs.
"Kids Is Kids" isn't a collection of cartoons, which would be just dandy, but rather an old 46-minute Disney TV show. The original cartoons were re-edited into snippets and that insufferable and unfunny Disney character known as Ludwig von Drake, was inserted to ruin the continuity and splash quarts of cold water on everybody's fun. The Disney company continues to show a remarkable if reprehensible talent for defiling and defacing its own best work.
What all this indicates is that the blessings of the video revolution are going to be depressingly mixed ones. But however bad it is, it will still be better than TELEVISION, that ghastly business that comes through the air.