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Sony retires analog camcorder

In a sign of the times, an industry workhorse is being put out to pasture. Sony Electronics Broadcast & Professional Co. has discontinued manufacturing its Betacam SP analog camcorder.

Declining sales and the cost-competitiveness of digital equipment have put an end to the camcorder, a key member of what has been Sony's most successful portable videotape recording format ever, with more than 450,000 units sold worldwide in 20 years.

Sony executives say the company will continue to make several models of Betacam SP VTRs. There is still "significant demand" for the VTRs, which are used for production, playback and editing, says Alec Shapiro, vice president of marketing for the Sony division. "We sell up to 1,500 units of some models a year."

In addition, Shapiro says, Sony's 1/2-inch digital product families include VTRs that will play back the analog Betacam SP tapes.

Authorized service and repair of analog camcorders will continue for several years.

The first Betacam cameras based on a 1/2-inch format, the single-tube BVW-1 and three-tube BVW-3, were introduced by Sony in 1981. It soon replaced bulky 3/4-inch U-Matic equipment (which replaced 16mm film) for shooting broadcast news and sports.

Today, the remaining analog camcorders in Sony's inventory are the one-piece BVW-D600 and BVW-D600WS. The three-CCD cameras are still available, but only as long as supplies last.

In the end, the format went the way of other analog products in an increasingly digital world, according to Rob Willox, national marketing manager for acquisition systems at Sony.

While sales for analog camcorders have dwindled to a few hundred per year, Willox said, Sony's digital products, especially DVCAM and HDCAM, have experienced steady growth. In fact, 230,000 units of DVCAM have been sold worldwide since its introduction in 1996.

That 's largely due to size and cost. The $16,000 DSR-500WSL DVCAM camcorder, weighing about 12 pounds, offers more features and a sharper picture than the larger $50,000 analog camcorders they have replaced, according to Willox. Digital cameras and VTRs are less expensive to manufacture and service as well, he said.

For media companies like Time Warner Cable and Gannett Broadcasting, which have chosen DVCAM for their news operations, purchasing the lightweight, low-cost digital gear has meant better on-air image quality and more camera crews on the street.

TWC will use DVCAM at six cable news channels it is launching and Gannett is in the process of outfitting all of its 26 TV stations with it.

"It's important to have the best image quality we can get coming into the facility at the most affordable price. It gives us that," said TWC's Harlan Neugeboren.