MSG: 3D Hockey Telecast Offsides For Other Distributors

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Cablevision Systems and MSG network touted the first-ever live 3D sports telecast to home viewers -- the March 24 New York Rangers-Islanders hockey game -- which was available exclusively to the cable operator's New York-area customers.

The enhanced game feed wasn't offered to telco competitors while other cable and satellite TV operators either didn't have enough time to accommodate carriage or, in DirecTV's case, opted not to offer a "one-off event."

MSG Media president Mike Bair said the network approached other distributors, including DirecTV and Time Warner Cable, about carrying the game in 3D, but that the project's quick turnaround made it logistically impossible to execute.

"We just announced this [to affiliates] two weeks ago," he said.

MSG's 3D telecast dropped the puck on a flurry of sports activity in the nascent TV space. CBS, LG Electronics and Cinedigm Digital Cinema are set to present the Final Four, the national semifinals of the 2010 Men's Division I Basketball Championships on April 3, as well as the final on April 5 in 3D, to 100 theaters around the nation. For their part, Sony Electronics and Comcast will deliver  back-nine coverage of The Masters from Augusta National Course on April 8-11 in 3D HD, as well as the Par 3 Tournament on April 7,  to the top operator's residential customers with the requisite equipment.

Bair said MSG's next 3D event will likely be a concert this summer, produced through its Fuse music network.

Rangers-Islanders in 3D telecast

The 3D version of the Rangers-Islanders game, which ran without commercials, was available exclusively to Cablevision subscribers with HD set-top boxes, on channel 1300. It is unknown how many Cablevision customers actually viewed the game on a 3DTV. Cablevision said it was aware of several subscribers, including some "friendlies," who tuned in to the live broadcast but the operator declined to provide numbers.

MSG also hosted a 3D viewing event at the Theater at Madison Square Garden for about 2,600 hockey fans, media and partners; attendees included Cablevision chairman and CEO James Dolan, who is also executive chairman of the newly spun-off MSG.

To produce a better 3D perspective, the five special-purpose 3D camera rigs from 3ality Digital were located closer to the Madison Square Garden ice than with conventional broadcasts. However, that setup meant the rink's Plexiglas panels loomed in the foreground of wide shots and spectators occasionally thrust arms or heads into the bottom of the frame -- both distracting effects.

Time Warner Cable confirmed that MSG offered the 3D telecast, "but we did not have enough time to turn it around," said spokeswoman Maureen Huff.

RCN representatives said they were not offered a chance to air the 3D contest, while Dish Network did not respond to a request for comment.

DirecTV, for its part, is expecting to launch three 3DTV channels in June, centered around sports, movies and video-on-demand.

"We were offered the event and we were technically prepared to deliver it, as we demonstrated at CES when we delivered a live 3D feed to our CE partners on the show floor," said DirecTV in a statement. "However, we declined the opportunity because rather than focus on one-off events, our commitment at this time is to provide our HD customers with a complete 3D experience, which will include three dedicated 3D channels, beginning this June. To date, we are the first and only distributor, to announce such a commitment and offering."

Bair said MSG does not have rights to distribute sports broadcasts as part of a separate programming package or channel.

Meanwhile, MSG did not give Verizon Communications or AT&T -- which both compete in Cablevision's footprint -- the opportunity to carry the 3D telecast. Network spokesman Dan Schoenberg said that because it was "an HD/3D telecast... it was made available to MSG's HD subscribers."

Currently, MSG does not provide the HD feed of the network to Verizon and AT&T, under the so-called "terrestrial loophole" in the Federal Communications Commission's program-access rules, which prevent cable operators from striking exclusive deals for satellite-delivered programming in which the operator has a financial interest. The commission has voted to eliminate that exemption; both telcos have appealed to the FCC to be able to distribute MSG HD.

Separately, earlier this month, the D.C. Circuit Court denied a challenge by Cablevision and Comcast to the FCC's program-access rules.

Verizon director of media relations Jim Smith, in a blog post Tuesday, announced that FiOS will offer 3DTV content sometime in 2010. He alluded to the Cablevision/MSG 3D telecast as one of "various grandstanding plays by cable companies who also produce content and can play it on their networks in 3D, hoping to make headlines with their ‘firsts' while excluding Verizon and other competitors from carrying this material."

For the hockey game, MSG produced an entirely separate 3D telecast, using five different camera rigs, a different director and different announcing crew. Longtime Rangers announcer Kenny Albert called the play-by-play for the 3D feed, while former Ranger Dave Maloney provided color commentary and Al Trautwig hosted.

The game was shot using 3ality Digital's image-capturing technology. Game Creek Video provided a mobile video production truck, working with 3ality Digital camera rigs and image-processing systems. Harris provided NetVX encoders and signal-processing equipment to transmit the 3DTV signals, which were delivered in "side-by-side" frame-compatible format.

Rangers-Islanders in 3D

MSG used RealD's stereoscopic cinema system in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and distributed RealD's passive polarized glasses to attendees. Cablevision customers who wanted to watch the 3D game would have required a compatible television capable of rendering side-by-side 3DTV signals.

Several network executives cited the "historic" significance of the 3DTV broadcast, and noted that in 1998 MSG was the first sports network to provide HD coverage of all Knicks and Rangers home games in the then-emerging format.

The Rangers, which have an outside chance of making the National Hockey League playoffs, bested the Islanders in a 5-0 romp.