Some airlines still use videotape for IFE; now reuse and duplication is in the spotlight

August 14, 2013

Multimedia

Generic video tape 540x300 shutterstock Some airlines still use videotape for IFE; now reuse and duplication is in the spotlight

On 14 March, 1956, Charles Ginsburg and his team at Ampex unveiled the world’s first commercial videotape recorder, the VRX-1000, at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters in Chicago.

Roughly the size of a vintage Wedgewood oven, the VR-1000 (as it would later be called) used 2-inch (5.1 cm) wide quadruplex videotape and almost overnight replaced film – which was much more expensive and time-consuming to develop and edit for time-delayed broadcasts – as the recording medium of choice throughout the American television industry. Due to the VR-1000′s whopping price tag, however, (USD$50,000) it would be another twenty years before the technology truly caught on with the public.

But when it did – with the introduction of Sony’s game-changing Betamax in Japan in 1975 and JVC’s rival format VHS system in 1976 – the VCR revolutionized the way the public viewed Hollywood content both at home and in the air for more than two decades. But the gloriously grainy heyday of the video age was not to last, and by 2004, VCR penetration (which had peaked the year before at 91.5% in the US alone) began to drop dramatically as Digital Video Recorders (DVR’s) and a raft of other HD personal electronic devices (PED’s) flooded the marketplace.

The digital revolution was swift and merciless and quicker than you can say Blu-Ray, VCR’s and videotaped content in general became garage sale staples, the butt of chat show jokes, and the kind of thing you might only encounter at Grandma’s house on the holidays. But, commercially speaking, VCRs and videotaped content of almost any kind was, well, deader than disco.

Or was it?

THE MEMO

Last March, at a time when most people in the IFE realm were buzzing about connectivity speeds and advancements in cloud-based digital streaming, a memo emerged from Sony whose title alone stopped some in their tracks: “RE: Video8 and Hi8 Media Reuse for Duplication”

Videotape reuse and duplication? For IFE? Was this an early April Fool’s Joke? If so, the official Sony letterhead helped. But those who kept reading soon realised that this was, in fact, a very carefully-worded letter from Sony voicing concerns about the hazards of reusing used Sony videotapes in the recording of videotaped IFE.

While the news that videotape was in play anywhere in 2013 – much less on an airplane’s IFE system –  surprised some, Sony laid out the exact reasons for its concerns.

“These concerns are based on the following: The VCR population at duplicators and on-board aircraft is ageing. Production of new VCRs was discontinued many years ago and the availability of replacement VCR parts for worn transports is becoming scarcer. Even in a pristine VCR, all tapes are subject to cumulative microscopic physical damage and wear during every playback and rewind pass. This may eventually cause signal dropouts and generation[s] of debris that may, in some cases, cause VCR head clogging. More severe tape damage from worn transport parts (pinch roller, capstan, etc.) can immediately result in tape failure.”

The memo went on to warn of the dangers of “cross-contamination of VCRs” from a single damaged tape. This wouldn’t just affect inflight playback but upon reuse in duplication houses, could cause the same issues to arise during recording and “result in increased on-board VCR maintenance, and lower signal quality of the video and audio on the tapes the airlines receive”.

Sony ended by warning that the only sure way to minimize risk of playback problems was to “instruct your duplication vendors to use only new and unused 8mm cassettes for any video content to be played on your in-flight systems”.

And while the idea of using new tapes sounds logical enough, Sony’s memo raised a number of other very compelling questions. With most major carriers moving towards a strictly digital IFE platform, which airlines was Sony reaching out to? Who still used videotaped IFE?

The answer was: almost everyone.

LEGACY OF TAPE

You won’t hear them hyping it up at board meetings or at aviation conferences, but, many carriers use some form of videotaped IFE on their legacy aircraft.

“We do, in fact, use some videotaped IFE systems,” confirms Delta Air Lines spokesperson Paul Skrbec. “But, it’s not in the majority of our total IFE systems across our various fleet types.” And though Delta, like United Airlines and American Airlines, has been slowly phasing out video over time, they all still order tapes on a regular basis.

“Some [carriers] will do it just as a back-up in case the digital system goes down,” says Walter Lopez, the manager of video operations for Post Modern Group in Irvine, California, one of only three remaining video duplication houses in the US. “Maybe they have one of those old relic machines in there, and [this way] they’ll have a back-up that they can connect so people can watch a movie. So, I’ll get an order for maybe five tapes.

“But when I started, in 2000, American Airlines was booking … like, four main titles that were the newest titles every month and they were booking about two to three-thousand tapes per title. So, it was quite big even thirteen years ago.”

As a legacy carrier, American’s IFE-equipped fleet “previously included 8mm tape based systems”, says the carrier’s manager of inflight entertainment, Mark Smith. “We will complete conversion to digital IFE systems on all but a few remaining 8mm tape based aircraft by the end of the year [and] the remaining aircraft will be retired by mid-2015.”

And while two years might seem like a long time to continue flying videotaped IFE in light of the concerns Sony expressed in their memo, Smith says he isn’t worried. “At American, our duplicators use new tapes. Old tapes are destroyed and recyclable components are recovered.”

That said, one has to wonder if American’s gold standard holds true everywhere?

THE TALE OF THE TAPES 

“I think all the labs reuse the tapes,” admits Post Modern Group’s Lopez. “I don’t know if there’s an industry standard, but, we don’t use the tapes more than two times because we know that the quality diminishes if you keep running it through. Obviously, it gets weaker and weaker and looks worse and worse. So, we have a policy of [using tapes] just two times.”

And Lopez is quick to point out that the used tapes come strictly from Post Modern Group’s own stock. “Lets say I’m running a job for 100 tapes and I actually run 120, just in case a couple fail. After I fulfill my order of 100 tapes, sometimes I’ll go back and reuse the [extra 20] tapes for a different job. But again, I’ll only erase them once,” says Lopez. To make sure he and his team don’t reuse tapes more than twice, Lopez says they also mark the reused tapes. “If we see the mark on a tape, we don’t use it.”

When asked if he’s ever been pressured by carriers to reuse tapes that have already screened inflight, Lopez says “No.” And he notes that the odds of anything like that happening are slim. Especially since most duplicators rarely, if ever, see the tapes again after they’ve been delivered to the airlines. “United was sending us back some [tapes] for us to destroy for them [and] I know when I worked at another company, we would have a third party company come out and pick up everything that American sent back to us and destroy it.” And while different studios and labs have different policies, Lopez is quick to point out that: “Our policy is that when the airline is done with the tapes, they destroy them. We never get them back.”

So, who exactly is reusing Sony’s tapes? ”We can’t answer that since we only see the volumes going to the duplicators,” says Joe Balsam, the senior marketing manager, professional media at Sony Electronics Media & Application Solutions Division.

Meanwhile, a contributing factor to tape reuse has nothing to do with technology at all.

THE TAPE SHORTAGE OF 2011

On 11 March 2011 at approximately 14:46PM local time, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck 70 km off the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku, Japan. Triggering a tsunami with waves of up to 40.5m high, the earthquake literally moved the island of Honshu (Japan’s main island) 2.4m to the east and actually shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 10-25 cm. It also practically leveled Sony’s Tagajo factory in Sendai, the company’s main site for tape coating, which is a basic element in the manufacturing of several videotape formats.

Sony halted production in Sendai immediately, and in a matter of days, the global supply of Sony videotapes of any kind dried up. In fact, three days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, WNYC public radio in Manhattan reported that “coveted” two-hour Sony HDCAM SR tapes used in film and television distribution that usually sold for $250.00 were selling for upwards of $999.00 for a 90-minute tape. And things were even more precarious in the videotaped IFE realm.

“Oh man, we had to go to like, Best Buy and Radio Shack, wherever we could to get our hands on JVC and Maxell tapes, anything we could do to fulfill jobs,” remembers Post Modern Group’s Lopez. “It was that way for at least three months until my vault supervisor found a place that had tape stock. It wasn’t as good of quality as Sony, but we were sort of in a bind. Even our clients understood that we had to do what we had to do.”

Mark Smith at American remembers the time well and says the carrier implemented a unique, two-pronged approach to the problem. First, Smith says American “worked with the content service providers to ensure sourcing of adequate 8mm tape stock.” At the same time, Smith says American “also implemented a back-up plan to secure interim digital file servers in the event Sony 8mm tape production did not resume prior to completion of our aircraft modification programs, [which were] already underway. Fortunately, we did not have to pursue this back-up plan.”

But what about smaller carriers and duplicators with fewer options? Surely some of them began reusing their old tapes when times got tough.

“There was no other choice at the time,” admits Lopez. “So, the tsunami was definitely a factor in the reuse of tapes.”

And then, in an update on the devastating situation at the Tagajo plant sent to APEX on 28 June 2011, Sony announced: “We are pleased to share that manufacturing has resumed at the Tagajo facility, starting with professional disc production in May. Progress continues on tape coating, which is on schedule to resume in late July. Based on this progress and format prioritization, production of 8mm and Hi8 tape will resume in September with finished goods availability in October. Shortly after, we expect supply of these products to be fully restored.”

Even then, critics suggested that Sony’s timeline was a tad optimistic. And in fact, the plant in Sendai was not fully back online and, according to Balsam, “meeting new worldwide demand” until the Spring of 2012. But after almost a year with no new Sony tapes, a year during which many stakeholders no doubt turned to lesser suppliers and reuse of their existing stock to meet demand, or abandoned video as a viable IFE option altogether, one has to wonder what “new worldwide demand” there would be left for Sony to meet?

To paraphrase the Buggle’s now iconic ode to videotaped omnipotence: “Video may have killed the radio star, but had an Act of God now killed video?”

THE FUTURE

American’s Smith sums up the current state of the videotaped IFE industry best when he says that: “IFE tends to follow the consumer market to benefit from the associated economies of scale [and] the consumer market is quickly moving to digital media.”

And while the jury may still be out on whether the Sony tape shortage of 2011 was the final nail in the coffin of videotaped IFE or just another bump in the road, even Sony’s Balsam admits that he’s seen a huge uptick in interest in Sony’s digital and Video on Demand (VOD) options of late.

“In the digital era, we don’t expect any new IFE systems to be tape based [and] it is safe to say, as many of our customers have said to us, [that] the tape shortages of 2011 accelerated their plans to transition to tapeless options,” says Balsam.

Post Modern Group’s Lopez agrees and says that though he thinks smaller carriers will be demanding videotaped IFE for as long as Sony produces it, the move from Video8 and 8mm to VOD is happening fast. “Its funny, when I started [here] we had a big production room for tape duplication and now .. that room has been cut in half. -And the other half is being used to expand the digital VOD operations,” says Lopez. “In the next few years I think we’re all [going to] be VOD.”

But if the industry really is, however haltingly, moving away from video, one has to wonder about Sony’s motives for sending out the videotaped IFE memo in the first place. Was Sony expressing legitimate “concerns” for their stakeholders in the memo? Or were they trying to gently encourage the holdouts in the industry to upgrade and abandon videotaped content as a viable IFE option?

Balsam says it was definitely the former. “In that letter, we wanted to raise awareness of the risk to content playback integrity from known or unknown excessive use of 8mm tape on planes. We also wanted to recommend that content owners specify (or reiterate) to their duplication vendors that fresh, professional grade tape stock should be used for IFE dub work as much as possible.”

And as far as new stock goes, as long as there are clients needing tapes, Balsam says Sony pledges to be there.

And though he admits that videotaped content and VCRs are unlikely to experience the hipster comeback that vinyl did a few years back, Balsam says that Sony will be there until the last damaged head stops spinning. “We likely won’t see a tape renaissance but as long as our customers need the highest quality video tape products, to a large degree, Sony will provide them,” promises Balsam.

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Image courtesy Shutterstock

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About Tomas Romero

Tomás Romero is an award-winning writer/producer from Los Angeles, CA. He has written dozens of screenplays, two of which were produced as feature films. Aside from screenwriting, Romero has generated original online content, articles and blog posts for over five years on topics as varied as food, movies, music, books, travel, techie gear, politics, and the gleeful insanity of stay-at-home fatherhood.

View all posts by Tomas Romero
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4 Responses to “Some airlines still use videotape for IFE; now reuse and duplication is in the spotlight”

  1. Marc Burrage Says:

    I understand the need for broadcast media as a backup in the event on demand media is not available, but why hasn’t there been a transition to digital broadcast devices like DVD players instead of VCRs? Is it due to the risk of copyright theft being higher?

    Reply

  2. Tomas Romero Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Marc. As far as I can tell, it’s has everything to do with cost. And if you think about it, if a carrier has waited this long to upgrade to digital, why not just skip the DVD step altogether and upgrade directly to a video on demand (VOD) system?

    Reply

    • Marc Burrage Says:

      Thanks for your reply Tomas – I agree, having waited this long it makes sense to go down the VOD route, but it seems strange they waited this long! Great article though – the nerd in me was fascinated :)

      Reply

  3. Tomas Romero Says:

    Ha Ha! Thanks, Mark. The nerd in me was too, it was a fun piece to write!

    Reply

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