Disc-ussion: Remembering the RCA CED System

rca-ced-adBring the magic home….RCA! Bring the magic home…RCA! Bring the magic home…RCA! Bring the magic home…RCA!

 And so it went. Over and over again.

The jingle was amplifying through the Movies Unlimited store on Castor Ave. in the Oxford Circle section of Northeast Philadelphia.

It rattled the glass doors in front of the Warner Brothers VHS and Beta titles. It ricocheted off the truncated wooden display cabinets housing what little Super 8mm films were left in the store.  And it traveled through the air, out the door and caught the ears of eager customers clamoring to get into the store to rent such hot new releases as Flash Gordon, The Blue Lagoon and My Bodyguard.

The damn jingle emanated from a display unit situated just to the left of the sale counter. Located towards the back of the store, the unit consisted of a TV—maybe 17 inches in size—two rotating carousels of RCA disc covers, and a locked case with some of the best-selling discs.

What were these CED discs and what was the magic all about?

CED discs were the new kid on the block, or at least the new format in a young industry. According to reports and spiels from Sid Goldstein, our amiable RCA salesman, it was going to revolutionize the industry. At Movies Unlimited, where customers waited in long lines on weekends to rent movies on VHS and Beta, and would even spend money to rent an exercise tape if there was no movie of appreciable value left on the shelves, was a revolution necessary at the time?

Well, RCA certainly thought so. The quality, they and their colorful pamphlets said, were superior at least to VHS, if not Beta. The prices were reasonable, too, designed with collectors in mind. No need for movie fans to spend $29.95, $59.95 or even $79.95 for a movie anymore. The CEDs were priced mostly in the $15-$23 range.

At the time, Movies Unlimited was a hub where film lovers could talk about movies, and rent or buy old or out-of-print titles. Promoting the new format made sense, although the steady clientele saw nothing wrong with the $700-plus VHS and Betamaxes they already owned.

But there were differences—genuine positive differences—with the CED format, which used a stylus to play the recorded information on each disc.

Aside from the price, the CED format offered other things appealing to collectors.  RCA had licensed titles from most of the majors, so there was a sizable library with steady releases. They were formatted like record albums—remember them?—with snazzy cover art and info about the contents on the back, which made them naturals for people who wanted to acquire a library of favorite films. The cost of the player was considerably less than VCRs or Betamaxes that went for several hundred dollars or more at the time, too.

Movies Unlimited had a nice salesperson from RCA at the time, the aforementioned Sid. He said this was the future of home entertainment, and some people half-believed him. Sid also could have told you the future of the beverage industry was “New Coke,” and “Ford Pinto” was the greatest car ever, and you’d believe him, too.

 “Your cash is good at the b…Your cash is good at the b…Your cash is good at the b…”

Damn thing was skipping. Let’s try another CED copy of Casablanca.

“Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Las…Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Las… Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Las…”

Different disc, same movie, different place. To paraphrase Mel Brooks’ Governor LePetomaine in Blazing Saddles: “Fricking things are warped!”

Just a few bugs in the system, but were they bugs the high-tech electronic exterminators could fix?

The CED disc, years in development at the cost of hundreds of millions to RCA, skipped. Time and time again, as time went by.

Those who purchased the CED players weren’t happy, and word filtered out to the street. RCA denied the claims, but other problems persisted. Since the machines worked like record players, styluses wore out and needed to be replaced. They didn’t record broadcasts like VCRs. Discs were required to be flipped, because one hour’s playback was the maximum on each side.

According to the comprehensive tribute website www.cedmagic.com, RCA forecast 200,000 players to be sold in 1981. Only half that amount got pushed out of stores. A positive prediction by the company had 30-50% of American households having CED players in their homes within ten years, with sales of players and discs topping $7 billion.

rca-ced-gene-kellyThe numbers were certainly impressive enough to get video stores to jump on board. A chief problem, however, was that consumers were perfectly fine with their VCRs. If, perhaps, RCA had come out a few years earlier with their baby—say, 1977, before VHS and Beta began their ascension in popularity—CEDs would have had a better chance to click. But those few years obviously made a difference.

Meanwhile, another format was rising in popularity, a format actually introduced earlier than CED: Laserdisc. MCA partnered with IBM to launch DiscoVision in the late 1960s, but the first machine wasn’t found in stores until the late 1970s.  Like RCA, licenses from most of the major studios were acquired, but the format, an optical system, didn’t need a stylus that had to be replaced, or a platter that tended to skip. Hardcore movie fans, audiophiles and videophiles cast their vote, choosing Laser—with its more eclectic selections, video and audio quality supremacy, and special edition multi-disc sets—over CED.

At Movies Unlimited, returns of defective CED discs were steady. It wasn’t long before the RCA display was supplanted by a bookcase filled with blank VHS and Beta tapes, as well as Amaray videotape cases purchased by customers who taped programs and movies off of TV.

At the end of 1983, sources note that RCA sold less than 500,000 units in total—that was the number estimated for its first year alone. The retail price of the basic CED player dropped from a few hundred dollars to $149.99. In April 1984, RCA halted production.  

At flea markets in the Philadelphia area, CED discs were stuffed into paper box bins, selling for a dollar or two.

Nobody was bringing “the magic” home any more.

This is the latest in a series of recollections being featured on MovieFanFare in honor of Movies Unlimited’s 35th Anniversary.