ESPN to Go 3D

I wrote yesterday about the marketing push behind 3D television. Understandably, consumers, even in the best of times (which these are not), will be reluctant to part with their hard-earned cash for a 3D television set unless they have a reasonable expectation of being able to use it for the enjoyment of 3D content.

For that to happen, consumers would have to make investments in 3D Blu-ray players, and they’d want 3D movie titles, delivered by DVD or over the Internet, from the film industry. They’ll also want to see support for 3D content coming from television channels and networks, as well as from their cable and satellite providers. Presuming that’s made available, consumers also might have to purchase new 3D set-top boxes.

Essentially, for 3D to become an attractive proposition in the living room, all the vendors in the ecosystem must work together to provide a compelling, seamless experience to the consumer — from hardware and content availability to content distribution and delivery.

Then, of course, they’ll have to hope the consumer is willing to tolerate the inconvenience of having to wear 3D glasses to partake of the in-home spectacle. That’s the last hurdle, and perhaps the biggest one. Even so, I wouldn’t want to underestimate any of the other challenges. If 3D is destined to become a cash cow for all the industry players in the food chain, everything must come together in perfect synchrony. Anything less will result in failure.

Fortunately for the nascent industry, ESPN is jumping aboard the bandwagon. 3D movies have obvious appeal to a mass audience, but sports entertainment is a huge business in its own right. What’s more, most major sports events — football, soccer, basketball, hockey, baseball — could arguably benefit from the 3D treatment. Having accurate depth perception, much less protrusive visual effects, would enhance viewing enjoyment of, let’s say, the World Cup soccer tournament.

ESPN obviously agrees. It is one of the organizations, to which I alluded in yesterday’s post, that has done extensive research into consumer acceptance of 3D television. It now has decided to launch ESPN 3D, which will provide at least 85 live 3D events in a one-year span, starting on June 11 with the broadcast of a World Cup soccer match between South Africa and Mexico.

Other soccer games likely to be part of the broadcast mix, as will Summer X Games (extreme sports), NBA games, college basketball, and college football. ESPN will not provide reruns of sporting events. When there are no live events to show in 3D, the channel will remain dark.

Will 85 (or slightly more) live events be enough to make the channel a commercial success? Will they be sufficient to motivate consumers to take the plunge on 3D home entertainment?

One wonders about how the channel will be priced for subscribers, and about how many cable and satellite providers will pick it up and on what terms. Consumers will be sensitive about paying a subscription charge for a channel that’s available on a part-time basis, as well as one that carries only some content in which they might have strong interest. After all, it’s a rare bird who’s interested in World Cup soccer, X Games, the NBA, and college sports.

According to a USA Today news item, ESPN expects deals with distributors will be in place prior to the channel’s launch. It’s not only availability that will matter, though, but also the terms of that availability. It will be interesting to see how ESPN shares risk with, and potentially defrays costs for, its distribution partners, who might be reluctant to pick up the channel without a reasonable expectation of success.

As the USA Today article mentions, 3D broadcasts cost more than high-definition productions. You need two cameras (or specialized 3D cameras) rather that one, for instance, and you have think about whether camera placement should be different for a 3D production than for conventional sports coverage. The USA Today article notes that broadcasters might require a separate set of announcers for 3D productions, but I’m not sure I agree. It should be possible to use a single set of announcers in the broadcast booth, presuming there’s enough space for the additional camera equipment.

One interesting aspect to this story is that ESPN is committing to the 3D network only through June 2011. At the end of one full year of operation, ESPN will decide whether and how to extend the service.

Will ESPN keep the service going? It all depends on how it’s received in its first year. If I were forced to make a wager on the outcome, I’d say ESPN 3D doesn’t get renewed.

I’m not sure 3D home entertainment is ready for prime time, and I’m not confident that cash-strapped American consumers have the disposal income to upgrade from the HD gear they’re just now beginning to enjoy on a regular basis.

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