A Transition for Betacam
(click thumbnail) As if we haven't had enough milestones lately, the news that Sony is ending production of analog Betacam was one of those periodic reminders from out-of-the-blue that all technology is ephemeral, no matter how much it may have changed the world.
Make no mistake about it, Betacam did change the world.
It was 19 years ago, just hours before the start of the 1982 SMPTE conference, when one of the first single-tube Betacams (serial #3) arrived at my front door in Miami. (The Sony salesman insisted I got the first U.S. delivery, but who knows?)
That first Betacam, model BVV-1, was a remarkable invention, even though its single 2/3-inch Saticon tube couldn't touch the performance of even today's cheapest discount store consumer camcorders. This was a "WOW" machine, representing the end of the era of heavy (very heavy) one-piece video components for what was then called ENG.
How could those of us with back problems today forget the "portable" RCA TK-76 camera, the Sony BVU-100 3/4-inch U-Matic VCR and the Sony BVH-500 1-inch Type C field recorder, affectionately known as the "the brick?"
ON TO THE NEWS
After the transition from 16mm film in the mid-1970s, U-matic caught on as the format of choice for newsgathering, while Type C dominated more critical production. The original Sony VO-3800 portable U-Matic recorder, a luggable VCR originally designed for the industrial market, transitioned in 1976 to the BVU-100, the first product from the newly formed "Sony Broadcast" division.
As much as Sony originally tried to position U-Matic (and later Betacam) as strictly newsgathering products, the rest of us – tired of hefting recorders the size of concrete blocks each day – started using the small formats for production. Early "reality shows," such as George Schlatter's "Real People," introduced ENG technology to primetime, breaking the minimum $1 million price barrier for producing an hour of network programming.
At first, none of the clients at Television Matrix, my Miami-based video company, would use the Betacam on an actual job. It was mostly a PR tool to impress those still shooting on the U-Matic or Type C formats. I bought the Betacam to push the video envelope and that's exactly what happened.
In the early 1980s, Paramount's Entertainment Tonight was a client of my company. One of the show's reporters at the time was a young Robin Leach, direct from his days as a tabloid newspaper reporter. Leach saw our Betacam and was impressed. He'd been trying to figure out how to do a new TV magazine show for under $100,000 an episode and could find no way to achieve that extraordinarily low cost with the TV production technology of the time.
He wondered: Could Betacam break the production cost barrier? When he asked that question in 1983, the answer was "no." All that existed was the Betacam camcorder and a simple player. The player would interface to Sony's U-Matic editing gear but could not at the time be fully integrated into a 1-inch online production suite. In those days Betacam tapes had to be dubbed directly to 1-inch for serious editing.
I called the president of Sony Broadcast and told him of Leach's inquiry. He was intrigued and told me that Sony had been thinking along the same lines. If I could put together the deal, Sony would build the first interformat A/B-roll edit bay that allowed the Betacam format to be seamlessly integrated with the Type C 1-inch format.
The rest is a bit of video history. In the summer of 1984, with a contract in hand from Robin Leach and an order in place at Sony, I moved to Los Angeles and set up shop at Sunset-Gower Studios, the former home of Columbia Pictures.
The 1984 Olympics were going on in Los Angeles that summer and Sunset-Gower just happened to be the headquarters for the Olympics' broadcast center. I was very aware that when the games were over, there would be a fire sale on broadcast gear that included routers, racks, audio components and the like. It was a good move, because only days later the studio parking lot became a flea market of virtually everything needed to build a broadcast facility.
In the fall of 1984, with the support of Sony and Jim Fancher, an extraordinary LA-based free-lance engineer, the first Betacam/Type C interformat edit bay went into operation at Sunset-Gower. Leach's new show, the first to use the facility, was called "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." None of us, with the possible exception of Leach himself, ever remotely considered that the show might become a national hit.
The Betacam suite was also a hit, soon operating almost 24 hours a day. It performed flawlessly and copycat rooms spread throughout Los Angeles within the year. Sony even hired TV legend Milton Berle to do an ad about Betacam's use on "Lifestyles."
My adventures with Betacam ended within two years when I left the television production business in disappointment. As a child of the 60s, I grew up with the simple, naive belief that the power of television could – and would – be eventually used to make the world a better place. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" wasn't exactly what I had in mind.
For many years I felt that liberating technology like the Betacam had simply nurtured the worst generation of programming in the history of the television medium. While it's hard to argue that isn't true, Sony's invention also paved the way for the modern "desktop television" movement, where nearly everyone now has access to the tools to make programming of high technical quality at a very low cost.
I learned, of course, that technology is always a two-edged sword, rising or falling depending on how people choose to use it. Perhaps at only 19, it's too early to write the history of Betacam. But as the venerable format moves beyond its analog years, I propose a toast to an invention that has truly changed the world. The question of "for better or worse" remains to be answered.
(Note: Sony – after selling more than 450,000 analog Betacam units worldwide – will continue to manufacture Digital Betacam equipment, which has the capability of playing older Betacam tapes from the analog era. The company will also continue to make a limited line of analog Betacam players. Analog Betacam camcorders are history.)
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.