The Future of 3D TV and Why ESPN Dropped Its Pioneering Channel (Analysis)

ESPN 3D - PR Shot

When ESPN officially announced on Wednesday that it would discontinue its pioneering 24/7 3D channel before the end of the year, it hardly came as a surprise.

The decision had been rumored, and ESPN acknowledged in a statement that there was “limited viewer adoption of 3D services to the home.”

It was a clear setback for stakeholders who want to bring 3D to the living room, but they are not ready to throw in the towel.

“3D isn't dead but as we can see from this decision is in a precarious position,” admitted Duncan Humphreys, creative director at CAN Communicate, the London facility behind the first live-by-satellite 3D broadcast (England vs. Scotland rugby match for the BBC) in 2008 and technology partner to the production of the FIFA World Cup 3D in 2010. “It's obviously disappointing to hear the news that ESPN is pulling out of its 3D channel. Having said that, a total sports 3D channel in 3D’s infancy was a big ask. Taking those first infant steps with ESPN at the 2010 World Cup in 3D broadcasting was an honor.”

ESPN 3D highlights also included coverage of X Games with its close collaborator and supplier Cameron Pace Group, the 3D company founded by James Cameron and Vince Pace. Just last month, CPG and ESPN 3D won a Sports Emmy Award for coverage of the 2012 Winter X Games 16.

ESPN's withdrawal comes at a time when glasses-free consumer displays are about to hit the market. The Hollywood Reporter has learned that Stream TV Networks, in partnership with Chinese manufacturer Hisense, will be rolling out glasses-free screens running its Ultra-D technology in time for Christmas 2013. (The sets will cost $7,500.)

Further, Stream TV Networks is reportedly preparing to fund a series of 3D sports events to promote the new service, taking up the reins laid down by Sony.

Sony appears to be backing out of funding the broadcast of 3D sports events, with no plans to sponsor matches at the FIFA World Cup in 2014 or at Wimbledon beyond 2013. (Sony didn't respond to requests for comment on Wednesday or Thursday following ESPN’s announcement.)

Instead, Sony is putting its R&D and marketing efforts behind the production of 4K content and technologies in an effort to shift sales of its flat-panel TVs.

Meanwhile the BBC is drawing to a close a two-year test run of 3D programming that has includes Wimbledon and the London Olympics as well as documentaries and dramas, the last of which will be the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary episode, premiering in the U.K. in November.

"3D does cause people to switch off in its present form,” admitted Andy Quested, BBC’s head of 3D and HD. “About 20 percent of people find sports matches in 3D simply too long. Twenty-five percent of people are apathetic toward 3D viewing no matter the content. Another 10 percent can’t see 3D because of visual impairments, but arguably up to half the audience for 3D content is put off by having to wear glasses."

Dolby is among the stakeholders arguing that glasses simply won’t work in the home.

With Philips, Dolby is developing a glasses-free “Dolby 3D” format to bring content to TVs, smartphones and tablets -- and the company believes this glasses-free technology could both address the issue of weak consumer demand and provide a practicable business model for broadcasters.

Dolby told THR that some of its customers are planning glasses-free prototypes for early 2014, and hope to have products on the market by early 2015 at the latest.

Supporting this initiative is Cameron Pace Group, which in April at NAB said it would integrate the Dolby 3D format into its CPG 3D production workflow. ? Speaking to THR at NAB, Pace said, “[3D] is just going through a development cycle to the point when you can sit on a couch and watch without glasses. Autostereo [glasses-free 3D] is a model that works. … We waited for the Avatar experience to be realized, and we continue to move toward the day when the broadcast experience is realized, except that some of these technology barriers need to disappear."

Responding to the ESPN 3D news on Wednesday, Dolby 3D project leader Guido Voltolina restated Dolby’s belief that glasses are holding 3D back and added, “monetization of 3D content in the home has been an unresolved opportunity not only for sports events, but also for movies."

Still going in the U.S. is 3net, a 24/7 3D channel that is a joint venture from Discovery, Sony and Imax — though it's somewhat different from the ESPN venture in that it focuses on 4K 2D production in addition to original 3D production.

Asked about the ESPN 3D decision, a 3net spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter: “Although we don't comment on the activities of other companies, their decision has no impact on our business.”

BSkyB, which runs a 3D channel in the U.K. and continues to commission original 3D programs alongside 3D sports including cricket, darts and soccer, gives no indication of plans to pull the plug.

Since Sky 3D is given away free to all top-tier subscribers it was never intended to be a standalone profit center. Rather, it was launched conservatively as a loyalty product intended to halt churn while at the same time helping to brand Sky as a technological pioneer. Earlier this year it announced plans to grow the reach of the 3D channel.

Both 3net and Sky are additionally examining 4K Ultra HD, which generates four times the resolution of traditional HD displays.

ESPN is directing resources toward 4K as well. “We are committing our 3D resources to other products and services that will better serve fans and affiliates,” ESPN said on Wednesday. “We continue to experiment with things like Ultra HD TV production tools to produce our current ESPN family of HD channels.”

While Ultra HD itself has not yet proved that it can generate wide consumer demand, some are now putting their hopes in 4K in combination with 3D to entice consumers.

Said Chris Johns, chief engineer, broadcast strategy at BSkyB: "Ultra HD screens will give a much higher resolution for passive-glasses 3D viewing, effectively doubling the number of vertical lines to a full 1,000 lines per eye. Ultra HD may actually be a helping hand for stereoscopic 3D.

“The utopia is glasses-free 3D,” he added. "Ultra HD can lend itself to that because it’s increasing the number of fields of view that 4K screens can display.”

Predicted Humphreys: “New technology delivering high-quality glasses-free 3D on 4K screens will be with us this year, and I believe that's the future. 4K and 3D will be symbiotic technologies, high-quality stereoscopic productions will have their place, and hybrid 3D live productions will become the norm ... No 2D, no 3D, simply one production delivering exactly the same images."