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Would you pay $19.95 to see Julia Child cook a chicken?

Would you pay $19.95 to watch Julia Child cook a chicken? That is the question I heard asked the other day at a panel discussion on New Video at the annual convention of NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives). It was during a discussion about the current introduction of RCA's new SelectaVision VideoDisc system.

The answer from an RCA executive was: "Well, Julia is very popular both on PBS and on 'Good Morning, America' and her books sell a lot of copies. . ."

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Personally, I wouldm pay $19.95 to watch Julia Child cook a chicken. I might even pay more to watch her pluckm a chicken. But will millions of other Americans feel the same way? Not only about Julia, but about a wide range of VideoDiscs costing between $12 and $20 for up to two hours of home entertainment and information which can be watched over and over again -- after the initial purchase of the player for $499.95 (undiscounted)?

That is the multimillion-dollar gamble which RCA is taking this week with the most expensive and concentrated introductory promotional campaign in recent corporate history. Every day, in media throughout the nation, ads have been seen heralding the pending arrival ("6 DAYS TO GO . . . 4 DAYS TO GO . . . 2 DAYS TO GO"), and finally on March 22 will come the actual introduction and store availability of this new VideoDisc player.

The RCA catalog includes many new and classic films, children's programs, inspirational and educational programs, musical extravaganzas. All in "glorious" monaural sound. The player is not a recorder and does not have any recording capability.

Why, when the young audience for music is totally stereo oriented, does RCA choose to introduce a new system with 1950s sound?

An RCA spokesman told me that, since the American public has not rebelled against the awful monaural sound of most color TV sets, it is clear they are not yet conditioned to demand high fidelity and thus RCA decided to keep initial costs down by creating a monaural system.

When I expressed skepticism, he admitted that a stereo system is already on the drawing board and will probably be introduced within a couple of years.

So the truth seems to be that RCA made several questionable choices. In order to produce the machine early (although there are other makes and other systems either already available or about to be introduced) and market it at an under-$500 price, RCA has sacrificed fidelity of sound and a recording capability.

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The RCA system is called a "capacitance electronic disc" system and involves minute grooves which contain both sound and picture, with an electrode mounted on the player's stylus which transmits the sound and picture to the TV screen (you must use your own TV set, since the $499.99 player must be connected to it). The disc itself comes protected by a plastic sleeve which fits right into the player so damaginging finger contact to the surface need never be made.

With other disc systems already on the market or planning to hit the market soon, with many different brands of video cassette player-recorders already on the market, the RCA VideoDisc introduction is an astoundingly bold and potentially foolhardy (if it doesn't go, that is) $200 million venture which the entire telecommunications industry is watching carefully for clues as to which way the totally unpredictably market will turn.

Public reaction in the coming month will have an enormous effect upon the future of RCA and its subsidiary NBC as well as on the whole future of home video. Some Alternatives

Aside from innumerable varieties of vide-cassette players (most of which also have a recording-off-the-air capability) which range in price from around $600 to $2000 and use the more expensive ($50-$70) videotapes, there are several other non-recording disc players on the market now, or scheduled to come to market shortly. As with the basic video-cassette systems, unless they use the same system, the discs are not compatible -- that is, the discs of one system will not be usable on the other systems.

In many areas, Pioneer and Philips/Magnavox are already marketing systems which use laser beams instead of grooves. These have been selling in the $700-$ 900 range, with LazerDiscs going for $10-$20. One big hitch has been that many retail outlets have reported an enormously high (sometimes over 50%) rate of defective discs. It seems to be more economical for the companies to replace defective discs rather than establish expensive quality control.

But, wait, there is still more to this complicated story. Before the end of the year, the VHD (video high density) system will be introduced by a multinational combine which includes General Electric (USA), Thorn EMI (England) and JVC and Matsushita (both of Japan). It is still another system which utilizes elements of both competetive systems. And it will have stereo capability.

Many observers of the marketplace believe that programming will prove to be the major factor.People will be influenced to buy a system which offers the programs they want to watch more than once. Other observers believe that a huge lending-library disc service may develop. And still others, myself included, believe that the American public may turn to a rental system -- whereby both video-cassette players and video-disc players will be rented on a monthly basis with cassette and disc programming also available on a rental basis.

RCA, however, is gambling on the American people being willing to go out and spend close to $1,000 (player and discs) on a new, unproven technology.

Are youm ready to do that?

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