Preserving the Visual Past: Panasonic MII

By Rhony Dostaly
February 24, 2015
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Andy Rooney, the CBS news television writer and commentator, is sometimes credited for coming up with the 50-50-90 rule. It goes something like this: any time you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there's a 90% probability you'll get it wrong. Such was the case when Panasonic decided to bring their MII format to market.

Back in 1986 Panasonic thought they had the competitive answer to Sony's Betacam SP format. Their product was smaller, lighter and poised to take over the electronic news gathering (ENG) market. Panasonic should have taken heed to Andy Rooney's warning. The MII format was a disaster.

The plan must have looked great on paper. Replace all the bulky U-Matic and 1-inch video equipment that were in use in studios and field production with this new smaller format. Sony’s new Betacam SP cassette format was bulky, and Panasonic saw an opportunity to introduce a component video system utilizing a smaller cassette shell (very similar in size to a VHS cassette).   

NBC bought into this plan and decided to use this format on their Major League Baseball on NBC program. For whatever reason, the MII format did not last. By early 1990s it was all but gone. The Betacam SP format flourished throughout the other networks and MII fell by the wayside like the Betamax did years earlier. I can only surmise that the video engineers at the time started to experience problems similar to what I’ve encountered working with this format as part of my job in The Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division. 50-50-90 rule notwithstanding, the MII format didn’t stand a chance in broadcasting.

I was first introduced to the MII format when the Moving Image and Recorded Sound (MIRS) Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture approached the Moving Image Preservation labs to help in the preservation of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Oral History Project. I invite everyone to click through to read more about this extremely important collection.

Doc cheatham

The Louis Armstrong Jazz Oral History Project consists of many wonderful video interviews by some of the greatest names in jazz. All of the interviews were recorded on the Panasonic MII format. Too many to go through here, I’ll just mention two examples here to give you a brief sampling of the collection. One of the first tapes I worked on was an interview with the great jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham.  On the tape we learned how it was growing up in Nashville and touring with the great jazz bands of the time. Doc made that era come alive and you get a great sense of what is was like to be around during those early years of his career.  Warren Smith showcased his talents and gave us a lesson on the drums on yet another interview while at the same time giving us a brief history of jazz percussion theory. Again, I invite you to go through this fantastic collection.

I can only describe my working with this format as hit or miss. One tape would go through my video chain with absolutely no problem at all while another would not allow its signal to be captured.  I found the format to be susceptible to numerous dropouts where the magnetic particles on the tape become detached from the backing material causing a loss of signal. The MII stock would not relinquish its signal if the humidity that day was on the high side. I encountered many tapes with uneven winding issues. The tape stock itself is prone to clogging the decks and valuable time would be spent cleaning the machines after every playback. One must adhere to a strict policy of capturing this format at the optimum times while keeping a pristine playback deck at the ready. My theory on the demise of the MII format is that such a format could not (and did not) function well in a broadcast environment. The cost of proper daily maintenance most likely became too high to continue with the format. While picture quality was excellent on this analog component ½" format, it ultimately could not get over the many reliability issues it was born with. 50-50-90 rule strikes again.

We do have a happy ending to this blog post. With a lot of patience and proper care taken, the Jazz Oral History Project was captured and now exists as 10-bit uncompressed digital files.  Access copies are available for viewing at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture by appointment.