Why Aren't Master Tape Formats Used Everywhere?

by Justin Sevakis,

Vandeilo asked:

You say that video masters are stored on magnetic tapes, not dissimilar to VHS tapes. Why is it that such tapes aren't used for playback at the consumer level? I don't really see much of a reason why you couldn't just edit the video correctly for home playback (removing time of black screen and the like) and duplicate and mass produce tapes containing that information, which would be played back on VCR-like devices designed to read and interpret that data? What's physically advantageous about using magnetic tapes at the professional level and physically disadvantageous about using them at the consumer level?

Surely, you're not really wanting to go back to using tape to watch video, do you? As a format on which to enjoy a program, it's hard to even imagine going back to tape. Tape doesn't support menus or removable subtitles. They can take forever to shuttle around to find a scene you're looking for. They wear out, drop out, get eaten by dirty machines, and have to be rewound. A modestly strong magnet can erase them. They're heavy and expensive, and take up a lot of room on a shelf. They cost a lot of money to ship.

The sort of broadcast level tapes used in video production, which include DigiBeta (Digital Betacam) for SD, and HDCam and HDCam SR for HD, are distant descendants of Sony's long-dead consumer Betamax format. The original professional Betacam caught on back in the mid 1980s because it was very high quality, and much more portable than the giant 1" thick reel-to-reel "Type C" tape format that was commonly used in production at the time. Most importantly, it supported timecode, which is a way of indexing video so that every frame has a unique number, like 01:20:43;14 (meaning 1 hour, 20 minutes, 43 seconds and 14 frames). Timecodes are essential to video editing, or any kind of production work.

Copying video from tape to tape was simply the way every bit of video work was accomplished back in the day. Need to add a title and trim some frames out? Grab a blank tape, pass the video through a character generator, and copy to the new tape a piece at a time, using timecodes to specify where everything went. This way of assembling video mostly died out with Final Cut Pro (and at the high end, AVID) becoming commonplace in the early 2000s, but was still being used here and there for making a final tape. Tapes were also the most reliable and easiest way to back up video in the highest quality possible. Full, uncompressed video files are huge, after all -- a single anime episode in HD can easily be 80 GB or bigger.

Truth be known, a lot of this was just old habits. Professional work environments need consistent methods of working and backing things up, and keeping everything tape-based was just easier and cheaper, for a while anyway. As hard drives got bigger, the internet got faster, and computers became the dominant way of doing everything, copying everything back and forth to tape made less and less sense. Also, HDCAM is EXPENSIVE! 90-120 minute blank tapes are $100-180 each, and decks start at over $30,000 and get horrifyingly close to $100,000 in price.

The US started switching to file-based everything some years ago, but it wasn't until the tape shortage that followed the the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami that Japan started doing away with tape-based workflows. These days, Japan uses tape just for backup and delivery to TV stations. Most masters are sent to American companies on hard drives these days. Many of them don't even have HDCam decks, and when they get a tape, they have to hire an outside company to get them transferred to files.

Tapes are still a bit more reliable than a hard drive (except in that they can easily have a tiny drop-out that's easy to miss -- whereas a bum hard drive will probably take out the entire file). There is a huge problem with digital preservation right now, as there's no really good, solid way to keep the huge amounts of data preserved for a long time. Replicated DVDs and Blu-rays, for all their faults, are as good as we're going to get for a while, in that regard. In that way, the consumer formats are a ways ahead of the professional ones.

For what it's worth, JVC tried to market D-VHS, which was an all-digital, HD-ready VHS format, to the general public back in 2005. Nobody wanted it, the tapes had horrible compatibility problems, and with a lot of people still not owning an HDTV, it failed miserably. Blu-ray and HD-DVD came along two years later.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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