For Now, a War of Words

Sony, Panasonic race to get new formats into the field

Back in February, the writing was on the wall: War was definitely going to happen. There was an uneasy quiet as plans were unveiled by one side to march ahead in an effort to make the world a better place. Meanwhile, the opposition sat quietly, seemingly doing nothing, leaving many wondering how it would respond to the impending attack.

So, when Panasonic introduced its new camera system based on solid-state SD memory cards last week, it caught the industry by surprise and was just the kind of weapon the company needed at just the right time. Sony's introduction of an optical-disc, blue-laser recording system in February had many reporters wondering when Panasonic would counterattack.

"This is mind-expanding," says Andy Setos, president of engineering for the Fox Group. Fox, CBS and Raycom Media will work as consultants with Panasonic.

"There's no waste of tape, less battery consumption, less weight and less maintenance. And multiple people will have access to the content as soon as the disc is put into the system. This will revolutionize every single aspect of TV production."

Dave Folsom, Raycom Media vice president of technology, agrees that the lack of moving parts means more cameras in the field and less in the shop, a constant issue for today's ENG departments.

The revolution is still under development, although the company says it will be shipping in the first quarter of 2004. Panasonic did show members of the press a working prototype of the camera, with some caveats. It used a 512-MB SD memory card instead of the PCMCIA card with four 1-GB SD memory cards mounted on it. Transfer rates on the final system are expected to be 640 Mb/s. The demonstration model's transfer rate was only 10 Mb/s. Nevertheless, it did record, and material was ingested into a laptop PC via an SD memory card reader.

The need for a demonstration came on the heels of needling from the Sony booth, where some wags dubbed Panasonic's new camera the "Balsa-cam." Lesson one in the tech business: An unnamed, unseen product is one simply waiting to be mocked. Meanwhile, CNN, NBC and Ohio's Dispatch Broadcast Group announced last week that they had opted for Sony's optical-disc ENG (see story, p. 46).

It has been about five years since the industry has engaged in a format war; that one centered on Panasonic's DVCPRO, Sony's Betacam SX and DVCAM, and JVC's D-9 format.

This one could be more interesting, because each has fundamental strengths and weaknesses that leave openings for the opposition to exploit. For example, SD memory inherently is vulnerable to radiation and static. And the larger the storage capacity, the more vulnerable it becomes (Panasonic says it is working on a way to solve those vulnerabilities). As for optical disc, the weakness compared with SD is that it still requires mechanical transports, and Sony's initial specs say it can't record below 32 degrees. The former is a problem that can't be solved; the latter, Sony execs believe, will be altered.

"When Betacam SX came out, we were just as conservative with the temperature range, and it has worked fine in Green Bay and Buffalo," says Steve Jacobs, Sony senior vice president of the broadcast and professional systems division. "If there's a Survivor: Buffalo, I want them to use Sony's optical-disc system."

Jacobs says the inherent disadvantage of SD memory-based recording is that the price of flash memory over the next five years will not challenge any tape or optical media. "Even Panasonic's own presentation doesn't show SD memory beginning to approach the recording time of today's optical disk until 2007."

Panasonic Vice President, Marketing, Stuart English agrees that optical certainly has more storage capacity (90 minutes vs. 18 minutes) but says Panasonic can resolve that by multiple cards.

There is plenty of room in the industry for two formats so it's hard to say which one or whether there will be a winner.

Check that. There will be one winner. "I don't know which one will be better in the end, but I do know this," says one broadcast executive. "We'll be able to negotiate a great price once we make a decision."


War of words

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