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A Tiny Step for Super VHS in a Big Market

December 16, 1988|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

Super VHS (S-VHS), offering a much sharper picture than regular VHS, is supposedly the format of the future. Well, the future is now a step closer--but just a tiny step.

S-VHS videocassette decks have been on the market since last year, but only 100,000 have been sold. One problem is the price--a hefty $1,000 to $1,500. Another has been the total lack of prerecorded cassettes in the S-VHS format. Video companies haven't been rushing to board the S-VHS bandwagon.

Orion is the first company to offer S-VHS software. It just announced a deal with Hitachi--buy a Hitachi S-VCR and you also get an order form entitling you to purchase 40 Orion titles in S-VHS until June 30.

Orion previously had a deal with Mitsubishi, providing one title, "RoboCop," free to those who bought a Mitsubishi S-VCR. But this joint promotion with Hitachi, offering so many more titles, is the first significant move toward providing S-VHS software.

The movies available through Hitachi include "RoboCop," "Colors" and "Throw Mama From the Train," as well as titles such as "The Princess Bride" from Nelson, which is distributed by Orion. These movies, which mostly sell in regular VHS for $89.98, are only $39.98 in S-VHS.

"We can offer these movies more cheaply because this is a joint promotion--we're sharing costs with Hitachi," said Orion executive Paul Wagner.

Orion stands alone in the S-VHS software market--and may stand alone for a long, long time. The word is that none of the other video companies--at the moment at least--is interested in making their titles available in the new format.

This deal with Orion, of course, gives Hitachi an advantage over its competitors in the S-VHS VCR-deck market. "Our share of the market should increase," said Bruce Schoenegge, Hitachi's vice president for product development.

But it's still a small market. According to industry projections, only 25,000 S-VHS decks will be sold next year; about 20%--5,000 machines--figure to be Hitachis.

Despite the high-resolution S-VHS picture--which is as good as what's on laser-disc--there are a few drawbacks with the new format. First, and most significant, a S-VHS cassette can only be played on the S-VHS machine, not the VHS deck most people have at home.

Also, you need a TV that's capable of handling the high-resolution, S-VHS picture--meaning a fairly recent, expensive, big-screen TV. It's a waste to play S-VHS cassettes on an ordinary TV.

Customers certainly won't be as eager to buy S-VHS decks until they can easily get a wide selection of movies in the new format at their local video store. And there certainly won't be a run on S-VHS decks until the price drops considerably. Apparently, that's a couple of years away.

Hitachi's Schoenegge ominously predicted: "The prices of these S-VHS decks aren't going to drop very fast. It has a lot to do with the complex economics of the VCR market. In two years, the price of the S-VHS decks probably won't be the same--it may be even higher."

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