For some perspective on 3DTV's prospects, consider how ESPN HD launched in 2003 and how ESPN 3D will launch on June 11.
ESPN HD launched in March 2003 on some of the smallest cable distributors, the likes of Comporium, Service Electric Cable TV and Utilacom, ESPN's top distribution executive, executive VP of sales and marketing Sean Bratches, recalled Tuesday morning.
ESPN 3D will launch on the top cable operator (Comcast) and the top satellite-TV provider (DirecTV) on June 11 with access to more than 40 million homes, much more than the ESPN HD launch, though the 2003 rollout did start with some larger operators such as Cox.
"We're very encouraged with the slate of affiliates we have going into the marketplace with ESPN 3D" Bratches told Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux in a Q&A opening the morning's 3DTV conference co-sponsored by MCN, Broadcasting & Cable, TWICE and other NewBay Media publications in New York City.
Asked if ESPN had any new affiliates to announce, Bratches said "we're continuing to move on that front."
He said that by 2019, ESPN thinks penetration of 3D sets in the home will be below HD sets but above digital video recorders. "I think the home rate will be high," he said.
"Sports fans are early adopters of technology, and we think that the genre plays very well in terms of the technology, and we're very optimistic about our plans."
Being the first mass 3DTV programmer is important to the ESPN brand and to helping advertisers, particularly TV equipment makers like ESPN 3D partner Sony, drive business opportunities, he said. "When our brand is elevated it helps us drive revenue across all our platforms," including affiliate and ad sales.
ESPN 3D will only take 3D commercials, he said, but ESPN is pitching 3D-related advertising across its platforms, and that's where the biggest revenue potential lies. ESPN has already produced its first "This is SportsCenter" spot in 3D, and Sony will have a 3D commercial on the new network when it launches with 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer games on June 11.
Bratches emphasized that while ESPN has shown 3D events on an experimental basis in theaters, ESPN 3D will be focused on "the home experience" to suit distributors and advertisers needs. "We don't want to do anything to circumnavigate the price-value relationship of ESPN to our affiliates."
Producing live sports events in 3D is still a learning experience for ESPN, he said. The programmer plans to bring in semi-pro football players later this week to a field in Hartford, Conn., to work on covering different down-and-outs, fly patterns and other passing maneuvers. ESPN is working with arenas around the country to find the best camera angles to suit 3D, he said. "We're really digging our cleats in to make sure that the consumer experience is second to none."
Bratches said he was skeptical about how much 3D might improve a golf telecast. ESPN's 3D production of the Masters tournament last month changed his mind when he saw how clearly, for example, the viewer could see undulations on the greens and see how they affect putts. Despite such nuances, he said he thinks consumers have a better idea of the 3D value proposition now than then they did in 2003 for high-definition TV. Movies such as Avatar clearly help, and 3D TV displays are already common in retail chains.
Bratches said he bought his first 3DTV set over the weekend at a Best Buy in Connecticut. "It was a great experience," he said, shortly before Mike Vitelli, Americas president for Best Buy, was scheduled to speak at the conference.
Although there's a shortage of production trucks needed for event coverage, Bratches said ESPN 3D likely will launch with a roster of about 100 events, up from the previously promised 85.