Optical Disc (First Generation)
The optical disc is a form of technology that first emerged in the late 1970s and progressively developed throughout the 80s and early 90s. The optical disc consists of a round plastic disc encoded with data through the use of pits on the disc's surface which are read by an infrared laser. The laserdisc, the first iteration of the optical disc format, was capable of audio and video playback through analog encoding. Subsequent iterations of first generation discs were capable of digital playback, but without the ability for video playback.
What makes a first generation optical disc
The commercial interests
Recording vs. consuming ... spectrum of capabilities
Dematerialization (Kittler) Discretization (Stiegler)
VCD: Technical Specificity
The Video Compact Disk (VCD) was first released in 1993 by the Sony and Philips Group. Operating largely like its later cousin the DVD, VCD’s are a 4.72-inch disc with the capacity to store still/moving images, two soundtracks, and digital information files (1). The VCD uses a MPEG-1 format (a process of interweaving video and audio content in to a time based continuous data stream), which yields video resolution comparable to a standard VHS tape. Because the standard VCD can only hold anywhere from 74 to 80 minutes of video and audio content feature films were generally separated into two disks.
While largely an unknown and unused format in the West, VCD’s became tremendously popular throughout Asia with the exclusion of Japan and South Korea. Many have cited the VCD’s rise in popularity to its low cost in comparison to DVD’s as well as its particular resistance to humidity. The combination of these two factors along with the rather low popularity of VHS in China and South-East Asia, provided some of the major factors contributing to the rise of the VCD as one of Asia’s most dominant media disc formats. After the release of the VCD format in 1993, sources have noted that nearly 50 million VCD players had been sold in China by 1998, and by 2005 nearly half of the households in China owned at least one player. With its overwhelming commercial success in China, the format became increasingly easy to access which coupled with the relatively cheep price of the players and disks (due to their mass production in China and the emergence of wide spread video piracy [discussed in the next section]) , by the early 2000s the VCD had become one of the most widely consumed video media formats in countries spanning from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Philippians, India, and Pakistan.
Video Piracy and the VCD: “The Peoples Disk”
When considering the massive popularity of the VCD in Asia, as they were rarely used in the West, it is crucial to understand the historical constellation of technological, social, political, and economic factors that surrounded their rise to prevalence. To enter into an analysis of this phenomenon it will be instructive to explore the impact of the VCD on the media economy of Mainland China, while staying attentive to both the local particularities of the VCD format as it was employed and consumed, as well as its more fare reaching global impact.
On December 12th, 2000 the New York Times ran an article entitled “A Tale of Piracy: How the Chinese Stole the Grinch.” Riffing on the title of the classic Dr. Seuss story “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” that had been released earlier that November in US theaters as a film by the same name, the article goes on to describe the Chinese film market as a “well-oiled copyright piracy machine” that churns out untold millions of pirated Hollywood titles daily. While this may have come as a shock to some of the American readers, the issue of piracy had long been on the agenda for US and Chinese officials who in 1995 signed a “intellectual property rites agreement” that would be a crucial steppingstone for Chinas later acceptance into the WTO. As the author goes on to explain, that despite the early success of crackdowns “on software and music-copyright thieves” that many of those involved in “the counterfeit compact disc industry switched to producing videodiscs instead of software and music discs.” This had been fueled by an earlier decision by Chinese manufacturers to “adopted the video compact disc [VCD] format in the mid-1990's, before many people here [China] had bought… videotape players popular in the West.” With both the players and disks technology widely available, it was only a matter of time until the VCD became a viable format for the production and consumption of video in China. Many commentators from both the US and China have sited the VCD’s relatively cheep price as the reason for its popularity, but this purely monetary reading fails to fully explain the original motivations that would latter make the VCD synonymous with video piracy and as widely popular as it came to be. To explore this we must turn our attention to an early moment in history to seek out the causes of this development.
Controlled Disorder: The Rise of the VCD In Mainland China
Soon after the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in the 1949, one of the revolutionary government’s first major cultural policy moves was to “solidify its reign over cinema”(Clark). Stemming from the parties use of cinema as a successful tool for propaganda during the 30s and 40s, the task of reorganizing cinema in the name of the PRC would require nothing short of “reorganizing all existing production studios and centralizing the distribution network into a highly regulated system.”(ibid). In charge of this task would be the newly established Chinese Film Cooperation (Zhongguo dianying gongsi), who was assigned the role of “coordinating all film-related units in China as well as the selected foreign distributors, who supply films to the Chinese people.”(Pang). As a tool of both absolute surveillance and centralization, the Coperation would function ideally to structure both the production and consumption of film in the PRC. But as both the network of film producers and the demand form film grew the CFC soon “evolved into a huge, inefficient, and bureaucratic system detached from the real audience.”(ibid) By 1993 the CFC showed little signs of change, while new cultural policies designed to “open up” the country to capitalist production threatened to overrun the largely closed sphere of Mainland culture with a myriad of new consumer choices and desires.
As the country continued to open to outside influence, the demand for new experiences and entertainment grew. But while a growing number of consumers were “lured by Western entertainment and cultural productions,” the high cost of legal video copies due to international copyrite law, often out such commodities out of the reach of Chinese consumers. Further faced with the tight government control of the production of national cinema and the distribution of international films in theaters, the Chinese audience was faced with a double bind “the lure of Western commodities and the denial thereof.”(Pang). In this situation, “Desires for imported entertainment are only reinforced, and the inevitable result is piracy.”(Pang).
Set within the matrix of a closed cultural system and an increasingly open space of consumer choice, the evolution of movie piracy can be largely seen as “the result of the global diffusion of consumerism under an unequal distribution of world wealth, on the one hand, and the result of a specific national politics, on the other.”(Pang). In this cleft carved out by the confrontation of globalization and a “specific national politics,” the VCD came to fill a very specific role in mediating between the global and the local. In this respect, the VCD while perhaps chosen by the emerging black-market ensembles of movie pirates for its cheep cost, could never have taken on as sweeping a significance without the continual tension between the competing ideologies opened up by both the tight control of the Chinese State and the development of consumer desire. Thus the VCD’s rise to prominence can best be understood by remembering the fact that while the Peoples Government emphatically denied its support of piracy (a position necessitated both by its hard line cultural policies and from outside pressers from the WTO), it was the very same government that through its related economic interests produced in mass the very VCD ‘players’ that supported the rise of cheep pirated VCD’s as a dominant media format(). It is within this contradictory terrain, that the development of the VCD must ultimately be understood.