A Reassuring Outlook … in 3D

Programming Plans Show Talk of Technology's Demise Was Premature
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It has been in vogue for quite some time among media watchers to pronounce 3DTV dead, or at the very least, seriously stalled out; but nobody told the folks at ESPN that.

ESPN 3D is diving head first into a slate of live sporting events, including the Winter X-Games from Aspen, Colo., and college basketball every Saturday. Now available in 75 million households, the network produces around 140 live events each year and is showing no signs of slowing that pace.

For the first time this year, ESPN 3D will carry the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament live in 3D. For the BCS Championship Game in January, the network enhanced the the quality of its 3D telecast by using a completely devoted 3D production team (as opposed to sharing camera and crew with the 2D production), with its own separate trucks, rigs and crew. AT&Ts U-verse TV is bringing ESPN 3D back into its channel lineup after dropping the network in 2011.

“Live television is a different animal and in many ways harder than [other] programs,” ESPN vice president of strategic business planning and development Bryan Burns said. “Live television is an art … It becomes even more of an art when you have the opportunity to paint on the palette of 3D and when you do it right, it’s really special.”

Executives point to the proliferation of 3D-equipped TV sets, better 3D content and lower production costs as harbingers of 3D fi nally turning the corner and becoming a booming, mainstream medium.

CONTENT DRIVERS

“It’s still more expensive and probably always will be, but the solutions have really solved a lot of what we can do affordably,” Tom Cosgrove, president and CEO of 3net, the joint venture of Sony, Discovery Communications and IMAX, said. “You’re still talking about twice the number of cameras, and it’s more post[- production] time, so there is more cost. But it’s come down drastically.”

While live sporting events and movies may continue to be the 3D content drivers, other producers are focusing on creating compelling 3D programming in the scripted and non-fiction genres.

3net just began a partnership with Comcast Xfinity that will feature a slew of original series and specials on the service. Customers with 3D-capable sets will have access to content such as 3net’s original big wave exploration, Storm Surfers, and travelogue A Year in Africa. IMAX’s NASCAR: The IMAX Experience special is also part of the deal, along with 3net original series Forgotten Planet, China Revealed and Building the Brand.

Just a few years ago, 3D was all the rage at industry trade shows like CES, and blockbuster movies like Avatar put the power of the medium in front of mainstream audiences by the millions. And then came the dip.

A series of factors likely contributed to 3D’s sluggish rollout. Lack of consumer education about the capabilities of 3D TV, coupled with high costs and a slew of big-market 3D films failing to connect with audiences the way Avatar did, all played a role. Those factors, combined with what many consumers considered the discomfort of 3D glasses, led to some critics wondering whether 3D was dead. But that’s not how the executives working in the space see it.

“There’s always that enlightenment period where everyone’s falling all over themselves, then there’s usually that little dip, then there’s the climb,” said Ted Kenney, director of technology at 3ality Digital. “We haven’t started climbing quite yet.”

ESPN’s Burns agrees. “I think 3D is following a pretty typical consumer technology curve,” he said. Both executives liken the 3D rollout to HD TV — a process of making the technology affordable while also educating the consumer about the quality of the visual product.

3DTVs are now in almost 25 million U.S. households, and production companies like Kenney’s have a number of highprofile projects coming up that he hopes will help kick-start the medium.

3ality is currently in post-production on a 3D concert spectacular featuring Jennifer Lopez that has been picked up by The Weinstein Co. and is expected to be released in the second quarter. Producer Baz Luhrman also worked with 3ality for his remake of The Great Gatsby, which is slated for a May release date. In addition, Kenney hopes specials, like his footage of the Endeavor space shuttle’s tour around Los Angeles and Katy Perry: Part of Me, both of which his company shot last year, will help drive interest in the medium.

SITCOMS IN 3D?

But Kenney said he believes it will take more than big-name releases to propel 3D into the mainstream. He is hoping a weekly series like sitcom Modern Family or drama Mad Men will introduce 3D to audiences in a more consistent way than ever before.

“I’m hoping this is the year for that [weekly TV show], whether it be HBO or ABC or Fox,” Kenney said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions about this. I’m hoping one or two shows go in that vein.”

A lot of work is also being done on auto-stereo images, which will allow for 3DTVs that don’t require special 3D glasses. Kenney said he believes manufacturers will get to a point where they can price the sets reasonably, which could be a game-changer.

“We’re on the edge of an early technology, which always takes time,” Burns said. “All and all, we’re pacing ahead of where HD was 10 years ago, and that’s a good thing.”

TAKEAWAY

Despite talk that its rollout has stalled, cable sports programmers are moving forward with plans for more 3DTV content.

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