As many of you have seen in past issues, we have, up to this point, been quite enamoured of the MCA/Phillips optical videodisc
system. In our initial reviews early in 1979 (which appeared months in advance of similar articles from other magazines),
we found little to fault with either the system or the discs reviewed, except for what we felt were minor drawbacks in terms
of picture quality; occasional color smears, dropouts, and the presence of color burst in black and white programs. What we
didn't know then was that, unfortunately, we were basing our reviews and articles on the discs and equipment that were among
the first to come out of the factories, and as we have discovered, those products were given a much greater degree of quality
control than those discs and players that are now being shipped to dealers in Atlanta and Seattle (and soon Dallas).
To spell it out plainly, after our initial enthusiasm with this technological marvel, we've reached the opinion that there
are currently more than enough manufacturing problems with MCA's videodisc system to render it almost useless as a high-quality
video playback device, which is what both Magnavox and MCA guaranteed over a year ago. Neither firm appears to be competent
enough to handle the in-depth quality control required for disc and player manufacture, as witnessed by the large number of
defective units that have been sold to date.
MCA officials have been silent as to exactly how many defective discs have been retumed so far, though we've had numerous
reports from readers indicating that at least 1 out of 5 programs they've purchased have been unacceptable. One explained
that he's retumed 40% of his discs, "usually because they spontaneously go into a repeat or skip-ahead function." Though he
had experienced numerous problems with them, he still felt that "the discs provide a picture with less noise and greater bandwidth
[resolution] than provided by [his] local cable company . . . often far better than you can get on most home VTR's." Admittedly,
the disc resolution is, indeed, an amazing achievement, but in many cases, the ridiculous noise and dropouts render this image
all but unwatchable on a large number of discs we've seen.
Although some of our opinions on the shortcomings of the videodisc may seem to expect too much out of the system, keep
in mind that we still feel that it really is capable of providing excellent quality images, given sufficient quality control.
But both the discs and players have been plagued with increasing problems in this area, and it perturbs us greatly that neither
are living up to the claims promised by their makers.
To try to dig into the cause of these problems, we discussed first the difficulty of high-quality disc manufacture and
replication with a local MCA DiscoVision engineer who has worked with the company for several years. He explained that in
their current mastering process, 35mm prints of feature films are initially transferred via a top-of-the-line Rank Cintel
Mark III Flying Spot Scanner, widely known as the finest film chain in the world, though it's not without its problems. For
one, it can be a tempermental device, often acting up during heavily-spliced films, as well as sometimes adding unwanted "jitter"
to the transferred image because of an inherent design problem. The films are often transferred with simultaneous magnetic
interlock tracks for improved sound quality to a 2" helical IVC 9000 VTR, again a top-of-the-line professional device capable
of providing video quality better than that seen on network television. This tape is later transferred to MCA's laser disc
manufacturing machine, which etches small depressions onto a metal-coated glass master, creating a series of distinct pits.
Once recorded, the pattern of these pits has to be converted to holes capable of being read by the laser in the disc player,
with the metal coating surrounding these holes eliminated by a photo/electro-chemical process that transforms the master to
produce a "stamper," used to press out as many as 10-20,000 duplicate discs, which are called "replicas." These duplicate
discs are the ones that eventually wind up on dealers' shelves for sale to the public. Additional stampers can be made from
the original master to create millions and millions of videodiscs if required.
All the discs are produced via injection modling, a high pressure/ high temperature process that forces the polymethyl
methacrylate (PMAA) plastic into the stamper mold, which takes about 15-30 seconds. These plastic discs are formed
one side at a time; later, each side is coated with a reflective metal layer, and then both are glued together to form one
complete disc. Finally, a thin plastic coating is added to protect the disc surface from scuffing during normal handling.
We were told that dust, always a problem in critical manafacturing, has a habit of getting either between the two disc halves
or onto the metalized disc surface before the plastic coating has been applied, permanently sealing in the dirt forever. This
is apparently one of the major causes of 'scene-sticking" in which a scene is repeated over and over again, as well as causing
severe dropouts and image impairments, with dozens of horizontal lines littering the on-screen image.
Two of the biggest bugaboos in MCA's disc manufacturing process have been the photo/electro-chemical etching and the injection
moldiung, both of which are still far from being perfected. With injection molding, there's no way to determine when or why
a bad disc will occur, because every disc coming off the line will be slightly different. There is some hope, however,
that a new type of disc mastering called "DRAW"-Direct Read-After-Write-will do away with the need for at least the etching
process, and improving the quality of the stampers, but the troublesome injection molding will probably still continue.
The DiscoVision engineer candidly admitted the deficiencies of many of their discs, particularly the "CLV" (60-minute per
side/ Constant Linear Velocity) discs, pointing out that the quality control procedures in their Carson plant were often sorely
lacking. Several discs from each run are viewed in a consumer player's "Fast Search" mode for evaluation, even though some
defects can only be seen during the normal play mode. But even more importantly, the engineer stressed, are the problems present
in most if not all of the players sold in Atlanta and Seattle. "Magnavox has been hopelessly inadequate in getting out enough
machines to meet the demand, and their quality control is practically non-existent," he explained. According to another high-level
source, the players were being imported earlier this year directly from Phillips' factories in Eindhoven, Holland, and shipped
to Tennessee for modification to two-speed use (for both the 30-minute CAV and 60-minute CLV discs). A Magnavox spokesman
admitted that current players are being assembled from "parts kits" shipped from Holland, and eventually, the entire unit
will be made and assembled in Greenville, Tennessee. Still, all of the players we've seen or heard first-hand reports on have
been labeled "Made in Holland," which leads us to believe that they're all among the "adapted" units.
Also, each and every one of the players we personally know of has wound up with some kind of defect sooner or later, either
in the power supply or in the complex optical laser/servo assembly. The symptoms have included everything from overheated
motors grinding to a halt, with the player refusing to go into the play mode, to a hideously-distorted on-screen image, sometimes
resulting in a scratched videodisc. Others have complained about the occasional audio "clicks and pops," which generally stem
from the same cause as image dropouts - dirt under the disc's plastic layer, or a bad master disc. All told, the two biggest
problems with MCA's DiscoVision system are, simply, the defective discs and the defective players. Other than that, the system
itself is fantastic.
As always, the question is, "What's a videophile to do?" The DiscoVision engineer pointed out that the optical disc system,
for all its problems, is still the best format for consumer video progrnmming, being far less expensive to manufacture and
market than any competing videotape format. But he also admitted that if MCA chose to do so, they could be offering prerecorded
VHS and Beta cassettes, dubbed directly from the 2" masters, that would look obviously better than many of their videodiscs.
The only catch is that they would cost at least twice as much as the discs retail for today, and considering the additional
loss of corporate face involved, we doubt that MCA will stoop to offering videocassetes of thier programs in the forseeable
That covers most of the quality problems. On the other side of the coin, we have the extensive marketing difficulties both
Magnavox and MCA have had from the very beginning, when the system was introduced in Atlanta in December of '78. Between this
and the aforementioned disc manufacturing problems, MCA has had its hands full. We've been told that the reason for their
recent 60% price hike has been the unfortunate delay in perfecting the long-playing discs, which has forced them to continue
to use twice as many discs for a film, as opposed to the one-disc CLV package. And, according to the same source mentioned
earlier, MCA has been very unhappy with Magnavox's dragging its heels on getting more players distributed across the country.
As a result, MCA has recently elected to divest itself of all the manufacturing chores and join with electronics giant IBM
to form a new company, DiscoVision Associates, which will supply both discs and players to the U.S. market. IBM will tackle
all the manufacturing duties, leaving MCA to concentrate on obtaining more programming for the venture. As part of the IBM/MCA
deal, MCA will be receiving the lion's share of the new firm's profits for the next three years, to compensate them for their
years of costly research and development. All of this will not affect their earlier agreement with the Japan-based Pioneer
Electronics Corp. or the industrial Universal/ Pioneer Player (previewed in TV #18), though this would seem to cast a cloud
on Pioneer's chances of releasing their own consumer player any time soon. What this may mean is that now MCA and Magnavox
will eventually be competing head-on in supplying players to the consumer market, and considering IBM's extensive experience
in computer disc and business hardware manufacturing, DiscoVision Associates has a very good chance of being able to supply
the first reliable consumer videodisc player available in America. Further potential competition has been announced by Sony,
who recently stunned industry observers all over the world with the surprise unveiling of their own industrial videodisc prototype
capable of using discs from recently-defeated arch-rival MCA. Apparently, despite their legal differences with Universal on
off-air recording, Sonys prepared to bury the hatchet and go along with Universal's vast program catalog, a definite advantage
over other competing systems. We're hoping that a Sony consumer videodisc player will be forthcoming soon.
Meanwhile, there's RCA on the horizon. You'll forgive us if we're not looking forward to evaluating their SelectaVision
videodisc. The chief engineer of a large Hollywood post-production firm was recently overheard remarking, "If you think the
MCA disc is shit, wait till you see RCA's!" But we'll try to reserve judgment until the system is demonstrated publicly, hopefully
at one of the upcoming conventions.
The past year has seen a great amount of activity with the videodisc, and all of us with The Videophile are franily
disappointed to have to report on the tremendous quality problems with the Magnavision players and MCA disc programs. Surprisingly,
none of the other publications providing articles on DiscoVision (including Mechanix Illustrated, Radio-Electronics, Stereo
Review, TV Guide, and Video magazine) have commented on these alarming shortcomings. As far as we're concerned,
the videodisc has a long way to go before it will truly satisfy hard-core videophiles in terms of audio and video quality,
and until they get all the bugs out of the system, it will remain one of those things that came close but just didn't live
up to all the claims promised by its inventors. We'll continue to report on the progress of the videodisc, or the lack thereof,
in future issues.-MFW.