Sony to airlines: Say goodbye to 8mm video tape for IFE


Think Reagan-era airplane tech went out the window with smoking sections and Continental’s tabletop PONG games in their fabled widebody pub? Think again. Right now, on airplanes all around the globe, passengers are watching videotaped IFE. And having enjoyed the flickering, impossibly-grainy pleasures of tape-based IFE on a flight to Hawaii last fall, I can tell you with some authority that the medium has not aged well.

So, when I got word that day one of the recent two-day APEX Technology Committee conference in California was going to feature a session on the current state of videotaped IFE tape supplies, I was the first one in line.

Opening the session by insuring the crowd that the “tape reuse situation” highlighted by Sony in that carefully-worded (and very public) letter to stakeholders last year was a thing of the past, Victor Hernandez, the EVP of technical operations at Global Eagle Entertainment unit IFE Services turned the floor over to Sony Electronic’s senior marketing manager, Joe Balsam.

Joining the session via telephone, Balsam said that while Sony has done everything it can to “tsunami proof” its rebuilt Tagajo factory in Sendai, Japan and tape production has been back to normal for a while now: “No one is under any illusions that magnetic media is going to make a huge comeback.”

And though most of the industry has migrated to file-based alternatives in recent years, Balsam insisted that Sony will continue to honor its commitment to stakeholders for “as long as these [tape-based] systems are out there.”

With that said, Balsam’s next statement came as a bit of shock to everyone.

“One exception to that rule is when you have a product where the demand gets so low that it just isn’t economically feasible to produce it anymore. And that’s the situation we’re in with 8mm, which I know is a core product in the inflight business,” he said.

“Certainly there are other formats, other methods for inflight content playback that are growing … but, as far as 8mm tape goes – and this is fairly recent news [that] we haven’t made widely public, but, we will make public over the next couple of days – Sony will be the last of the 8mm tape manufacturers to exit the business in about a year.

“We will have professional standard 8mm and Hi-8mm products available for the better part of the next year, and our consumer Hi-8 products will be available for several years after that … but those of you involved in duplication who require 8mm or professional Hi-8, our people will be in touch to find out what your needs are going to be for the next year or so, and we’ll look to produce everything you’ll need. [But] after that, we’ll have to take a step back.”

Genuinely surprised by the news, Hernandez pointed out that since both himself and fellow panelist, John O’Connor, the director of digital media services for CMI Media Management have increasingly-limited stockpiles of 8mm tapes on hand. “I guess everyone really has to pay attention to the volumes of their customers” moving forward.

“I know that, for us, we were expecting to have a 40-50% drop in volume requirements coming in 2014,” Hernandez continued. “But, we honestly haven’t seen that. We’re finding that the volume of requests is almost the same as it was two years ago.”

But much of that could be due to the fact that some major airlines order many more tapes than they really need as an insurance policy against future shortages.

A conference attendee from a major US carrier put the trend in perspective. “You can never [predict] the right amount of tapes, so, even though we’re down to a dozen or so planes flying with tape-based IFE right now” it is more cost-effective to keep their minimum orders coming in at regular intervals than having to “chase the tapes” when needed.

And when asked by Hernandez what the attendee thought the longevity of his carrier’s aging inflight tape decks would be, the attendee laughed and responded. “The tape decks will be gone as soon as possible. Some of them are slated for refurbishment and some of them will be heading to the desert as soon as we can get it done.”

But tapes or no tapes, Balsam insisted the future of IFE has never been brighter. “The good news is that, no matter what … planes will continue to need content. It’s just a matter of how will [we] be able to supply it to them.”