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Distributors Waiting for Other Half of New Video Format

January 13, 1986|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — A classic chicken-or-egg situation is shaping up in video.

Sony, Kodak and other makers of 8-millimeter cameras and recorders were out in force at the winter Consumer Electronics Show that ended Sunday, showing off an impressive array of gadgetry. But film producers and distributors maintained a decidedly show-me attitude. And, until consumers see signs that they'll be able to rent or buy the movies they want to see, it's unlikely that 8-millimeter will become a serious challenge to VHS and Beta, the videocassette recording technologies that are in an estimated 23 million U.S. homes. For now, 8-millimeter's appeal is as a small, lightweight system for recording and playing back home videos.

"We are very strong supporters of (8-millimeter) and will be one of the first to release in that format," said Rand Bleimeister, vice president of distribution for Los Angeles-based Embassy Home Entertainment, which distributes such titles as "The Emerald Forest," "Silkwood" and "The Cotton Club."

"But most of the marketing energy has to come from the hardware makers," he said.

Sam Puleo, vice president and general manager of CBS/Fox Video, said: "If it's needed in the industry and picked up by the consumer, we'll be there, whenever." Included in the company's catalogue are such box-office blockbusters as "Star Wars" and "Romancing the Stone."

Although industry observers had expected Sony to announce an agreement on 8-millimeter with a major film company, perhaps Paramount, at the four-day trade show, no announcement was forthcoming. At a press briefing, Neil Vander Dussen, president of Sony Corp. of America, would say only that "we've been discussing the software with a number of producers." Sony is all too familiar with the problems of lag time. Its pioneering Beta recording technology was on the market for several years before film companies started releasing a worthwhile catalogue of popular titles. And by then, VHS had become the dominant technology.

Although industry heavyweights such as Sanyo and Canon have jumped on the 8-millimeter hardware bandwagon, others, notably Hitachi and Panasonic, are simply keeping an eye on things.

"When we feel it's needed, we'll have it," said Allan S. Wallace, a senior vice president of Hitachi's Compton-based U.S. unit.

Meanwhile, Sony isn't expected to chicken out of 8-millimeter. It has a reputation of supporting the technologies that it develops. Witness Beta, which has at most an estimated 15% of the VCR market. Vander Dussen said the company "is not in any way abandoning Beta."

THE LINE FORMS HERE: The longest queue in evidence at the show on Friday was at the Penthouse booth, where two centerfold models autographed black-and-white glossies (of their faces). Second prize went to Polaroid, where customers could get instant snaps of themselves shaking hands with a life-size cardboard cutout of a smiling Ronald Reagan.

A DEFLATED VIEW: In a state-of-the-industry address, William E. Boss, a vice president of RCA's consumer electronics division, noted that a typical RCA television set cost $568 in 1967. If the pricing had kept pace with inflation, he said, that set would retail for $1,849 today. However, even with vast improvements in picture quality and such added features as remote control, it now costs less than $500.

DOWN THE TUBES? The price of TVs isn't the only thing that's shrinking. So are the sets.

Advancements in liquid crystal display technology (which is also used in digital watches and calculators) are making tubeless, flat-screen TVs a serious alternative to traditional sets. Casio and Panasonic demonstrated pocket-size color TVs that, unlike conventional models, thrive on outdoor lighting. On the Casio models, the screen pops up at an angle and is viewed as a reflection in a mirror below. Casio's sets will be priced at $169.95 to $199.95 and Panasonic's at just under $300. All are expected to be available within six months.

NUMBERS GAME: To accommodate the more than 100,000 participants during the show's four-day run, the Nevada Taxi Cab Authority authorized an additional 117 cabs to be on the streets, bringing the total to 570. But that didn't prevent waits of as long as 45 minutes after Thursday's sessions closed. RCA executive Boss, waiting patiently along with mom-and-pop retailers and manufacturer's representatives, said he thought the wait seemed shorter this year than last.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimated that each person attending the show spent an average of $196 per day for accommodations and meals. That's a total of about $78 million. Of course, there's no telling how much they left behind on the gaming tables and in the slot machines.

MERGER-MONGERING: General Electric's pending agreement to buy RCA for $6.28 billion has the consumer electronics industry in a tizzy. The question is: Will the RCA brand survive if the companies are allowed to merge? J. K. Sauter, head of RCA's consumer electronics group in Indianapolis, told guests at a dinner Thursday that the speculation reminded him of writer Oscar Wilde's description of one of his characters: "a man who was successful because he knew the precise psychological moment to say nothing." Sauter did go on to repeat GE's statement that "RCA is the leading brand in the U.S. consumer electronics marketplace and GE has every intention of keeping it that way."

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