I Miss Videodiscs, the Fragile Garbage That Shaped My Childhood

I Miss Videodiscs, the Fragile Garbage That Shaped My Childhood
Graphic: Elena Scotti/Photos: Getty Images, eBay, Screenshot via YouTube

When I talk about the discs I watched videos on as a kid people assume I mean laser discs, or maybe I’ve confused my decades and mean DVDs, or even video CDs. There’s an assumption that I’ve just misremembered things, but that’s because the capacitance electronic disc, or videodisc (or in my house just “disc”), was a mere flash in the pan of a gadget. Something few stores sold and few people bought. Except for my father, who amassed a collection of nearly 100 of the discs so wildly unpopular we couldn’t even donate them when we moved out of the family home.

Capacitance electronic discs, or CEDs, were first developed back in 1964 by a team of four researchers at then consumer tech giant RCA. They were very fragile discs with grooves in them that stored the media and were read by rotating at approximately 450rpm — more than ten times faster than a record player. Essentially CEDs were super fancy records that played videos and the idea was they could be a cheap solution for selling movies to home users. But development languished for nearly two decades and by the time CEDs launched the VHS, Betamax, and Laserdisc were all available and without the myriad of issues that plagued CEDs.

That didn’t stop my dad from buying a RCA SJT400 in 1983. This was only the second or third CED player to include a “remote control” and it was an enormous remote that took up my whole lap as a child. It had the softest buttons and I’d frequently just stroke them or pretend it was some kind of computer as a kid, because using it to actually control the disc player was a nightmare and required you to point the controller at the player at the exact right height and distance — not kid-friendly.

Nothing about the system was kid-friendly. See, while CEDs were ostensibly really cool records that played movies, the discs themselves were extremely fragile — so fragile that touching the tiny grooves with your bare hands could destroy the video content. Consequently, CEDs came in enormous plastic sleeves. You stick the entire sleeve into your player, wait for the player to remove the disk, and then removed the sleeve. I’d spend the entire first half of the movie splayed out on the couch, my tiny hands trying to wedge into the empty sleeves (it pinched!).

To watch the second half of the movie I’d have to get up, put the sleeve back into the player, wait for it to spit the disc out, and then flip it so I could repeat the whole process and watch the rest of the movie. It was, in retrospect, deeply obnoxious. As a five-year-old it made movies like Superman and Star Wars feel larger. More epic. I was already accustomed to films like Gone With the Wind and War and Peace having intermissions, and the two-sided nature of CEDs just forced the intermission onto more movies. To this day A New Hope, the only Star Wars flick we had on CED, feels bigger and grander because of these vague memories of flipping a disc in 1988.

But let’s go back to the fragility of the CED, because the great curse of CEDs is that they couldn’t actually handle the repeat viewings children are prone to inflict on media. According to CEDMagic, a website devoted to the CED, a movie could only be played back approximately 500 times before the video degraded to the point of the disc being worthless. 1982’s The Secret of NIMH was famously the first CED to die in our house. By the time I was capable of forming and maintaining memories my sister had already nearly ruined the movie with repeat viewings and it would stutter and stall when we tried to play it. Consequently, it sat on the huge stack of CEDs for years mocking us with its bright art and promises of a movie all but forbidden to us.

(Also according to CEDMagic you’re supposed to store movies on their sides, not on their backs, which means we definitely ruined a lot of movies growing up.)

My dad apparently went on a CED spree around the time I was born and consequently, we had tons of great movies he and my mum then refused to buy on VHS. CEDs didn’t survive long enough to get the enormous catalogue of old movies that made VHS so compelling. Instead, they were all the most popular movies of the late, late ‘70s, and early, early ‘80s. The posters that you had to squint at on VHS boxes were blown up and easy to look at on CED, with a whole summary and stills on the back. Even after a disc would die I’d pour over those covers and wonder things like why on earth Luke Skywalker was so dang ripped in the poster or why his sister was clinging to his leg like that.

But when discs lived there were two things that made all the disc flipping and the slow degradation of content feel worth it. CEDs didn’t need to be tracked to playback, and they didn’t need to be rewound. It felt like I was cheating to watch The Muppet Movie or Dark Crystal and then just plop it back on the shelf when I finished.

Unfortunately, our RCA SJT400 gave up the ghost long before most of the movies did. The belt required in the mechanism to load and unload cartridges in CED players was apparently just as fragile as the CEDs themselves, and when it finally broke and stopped loading cartridges my mother had zero desire to pay to get it fixed. Reluctant to just toss out a 10 kg disc player she left it on top of the TV for years afterward, with Nintendos and Playstations periodically finding themselves perched on top. Eventually, we moved out of that old farmhouse and while we found a church to accept the 30-something-year-old TV it had been perched on, we could find no church, or collector, or anyone else in North Texas eager to take on the busted player or its library of possibly degraded and extremely heavy discs. It stayed behind in that 100-year-old farmhouse, but it still outlasted the home theatre revolution RCA envisioned way back in 1964.