Quake Causes TV Tape Shortage

Garry How/Getty Images

The closing of crucial Sony factories could change the television industry for years.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have sent a surprising shock wave throughout the international television industry as a potential shortage of magnetic tape is causing production and postproduction insiders to scramble to secure what inventory remains. “It was like a bank run,” says one insider as operations at major Sony plants were suspended.

The NBA, for one, is looking to secure enough tape to get through the Finals in June and its planned 3D broadcasts. Two key formats  affected are HDCAM SR, made exclusively by Sony and widely used in feature and episodic television production for camera masters and dailies, and LTO, an even more widely used magnetic tape-storage format made by Sony, Maxell and Fuji, among others. Sony has ceased operations at many sites, including its Sendai Technology Center, because of the earthquake damage and has voluntarily suspended operations at additional sites in response to reports of rolling blackouts.

A Sony rep did not offer a timetable on what the company would do next. But sources in the U.S. suggest product availability will also be affected by interruptions in the supply chain for the raw products, and one broadcast organization was informed that it might be a year before orders can be properly filled. To avoid hoarding, Sony is said to be rationing stock. But it might be too late; one rumor suggested that a holder of tapes was trying to sell new SR stock at a 75 percent increase over list price. (Meanwhile, Sony is encouraging clients to recycle what they have, meaning erase the old content and reuse the media.)

Looking for alternatives, industry leaders are suggesting that some might go back to film formats and/or speed up the use of next-generation “tapeless workflows,” in which production records camera information to a digital recorder and works with those digital files through the post process.

“We were seeing a huge transition anyway,” says Sarah Priestnall, vp market development at Codex, which makes portable digital recorders. “And this is one more thing pushing features and TV in that direction.”