June 2011
Volume 31 No. 4

View complete issue as a PDF»

Videotape Shortage Slows Down World Production & Distribution

Tape to file transition hastened for fully automated tapeless deliveries

Recently, the greatest surprise on record to production, post-production and international distribution execs came with the realization that high definition (HD) videotapes used worldwide came from just one single Sony manufacturing location: Sendai, Japan, a city of one million people devastated by the tsunami that followed the March 11 earthquake.

Maurizio Zuccarini
Maurizio Zuccarini, general manager of
Swiss-based World Content Pole SA

Other companies with tape factories were affected by the earthquake, including Fuji, Maxell (which makes tape interchangeable with some of the affected Sony formats), and tape duplicator Microboards Technology, but in television and film, the standard has been the Sony HD tape. The Sony factory that has the monopoly on production of the particular professional HDSR tape crucial to the television and film industry was shut down after the tsunami, which flooded the manufacturing complex located near the earthquake’s epicenter.

According to Sony executives with whom VideoAge spoke in New York City, production should resume at the end of July, but there are contrasting reports.

For now the industry is coping with the shortage by “degaussing” used tapes, however this is a practice that can be used three times at the most without significant loss of quality, despite differing opinions.

Meanwhile, while companies that perform tape-evaluation are doing brisk business, a two-hour Sony HD tape that basically looks like a Betamax shell and cost U.S.$250 before the shortage, now can reach up to $1,000.

The closing of the Sony videotape factory also affected other sectors since it stopped production of v8 and Hi8 tapes, which are used by the airline industry in particular. An In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) report stated, “There is conflicting information available as to when this key source of supply will be back in business. Even if things resume, it is also unknown if preference will be given to the manufacturing of higher demand products over airline stock.”

According to the IFE story, supply of v8 and Hi8 tapes could run out as early as this month.
Officially, the U.S. studios tend to minimize the problem, pointing out their newly developed digital delivery system that utilizes Internet protocols, and in this field, Disney, Sony, Fox and Paramount are said to be leading the way in digital delivery initiatives. Others, however, point out that HD cassettes are needed when dubbing is necessary. Studios reply that they control dubbing activities, therefore the problem is non-existent. Others rebut that not all TV outlets can receive digital downloads, therefore the shortage of HD cassettes is a real problem.

In any case, this past June 1, Fox studios switched over to a digital delivery system called FoxFast, which also offers marketing, its catalogue and screening via the Internet. According to Fox’s John Koscheka, the studio began its program of eliminating physical media in 2008.
Sony Pictures is also actively pursuing a tape to file transition with its Global Onboarding initiative. Sony’s Kerri Wilson stated that since the Onboarding program began in 2010, the studio services 268 clients of whom 68 percent are broadcasters.

Similarly, post-production houses are now pushing for ProRes 422 HD video compression format developed by Apple to be used with less expensive disc systems and Sony’s XDCAM as a replacement for videotape recorders allowing discs to be used (also supported by JVC). Some experts hope that this incident will force more TV outlets to accept programs as computer files.

As aforementioned, tape evaluation companies are on top of the HD tape shortage problem and are now highlighting state-of-the-art machines to re-certify broadcast videotapes by cleaning and inspecting used tapes for physical defects and damages. In the view of re-certificate companies such as the Orange, California-based Edgewise Media, “At this time, [this] is the only viable solution.”

To shed some light onto this tape emergency and to seek long-term solutions, VideoAge reached out to Maurizio Zuccarini while he was on a trip to Los Angeles. Zuccarini is the general manager of Swiss-based World Content Pole SA, a world content bank, powered by Swiss Telco powerhouse, Swisscom. WCP is described as a digital rights management and delivery content solution.

VideoAge: According to some experts, degaussed tapes can be re-used up to 80 times. Is that correct?
Zuccarini: Technically yes, but the risks will be higher with every new degauss. In addition, degaussing is time-consuming and is a costly operation. Ultimately, it depends on the level of reliability one requires. My position is to always take as few risks as possible, especially when content is a company’s key business.

VideoAge: Some re-certification companies use state-of-the-art equipment that cleans and inspects used tapes for physical defects. Will this help?
Zuccarini: Yes, of course it will help to manage emergencies like this one, but it isn't a real solution and I cannot imagine that it can become a standard procedure.

VideoAge: Even some post-production houses are now advocating sending programs as computer files. Will it work for most TV outlets?
Zuccarini: Yes, if the digital master files directly from post-production houses are stored in a high resolution compression file such as ProRes. When content in such high resolution is stored on a server, it would be easy to edit and/or encode it with different codecs. The idea is to start from the best quality and deliver any format as requested.

VideoAge: Finally, what is your suggestion/recommendation?
Zuccarini: My opinion is that now it's time to redesign the content workflows, which means not only to store and deliver the digital files directly to TV outlets, but to create for the production company a more profitable, easy-to-use digital platform of services. That's what we do at WCP and we have experience with content flows from post-production and management rights, up until content is delivered. We at WCP are now ready to introduce an advanced platform of integrated digital solutions, which will allow each player to focus on its own core-business. In my view, for production companies to invest time and money to build their own digital delivery systems is not the right choice, because upgrading digital solutions is, for the most part, illogical and a waste of money. It’s like companies wanting to start their own banks just to manage their own money.