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Now stepping to the plate for 3D: Baseball.
This weekend, America’s Pastime becomes the latest sport to get the 3D treatment, with much-hyped telecasts of two Yankees-Mariners games, followed by the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game next week.
The telecasts will showcase a technology that may one day be as common as high-definition TV. Even though audiences will be tiny, the marketing pitch and the execution of the technology could provide a key steppingstone to the growth of 3D in the home.
“There’s a lot of experimentation going on to really see what’s going to work in sports in 3D,” said Eric Shanks, president of Fox Sports, which will show Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Anaheim in 2D and 3D.
There have been a handful of 3D live sports telecasts, from the NFL and college football to hockey, the Masters and NASCAR. ESPN has been televising the World Cup in 3D and like others is planning to launch its own 3D network.
YES Network, Fox Sports Northwest and DirecTV are partnering to bring Saturday and Sunday’s Yankees game in Seattle to 3D. ESPN is doing the Home Run Derby in Anaheim on Monday.
The costs, at least five times what it would cost to produce in 2D, are being bankrolled by DirecTV and set-top manufacturers including Panasonic, which hopes these marquee events will give consumers reasons to buy new sets. Manufacturers picking up the tab has made it more attractive for YES and Fox to dabble in 3D.
“It’s not one entity bearing the total brunt of the cost,” YES Network COO Ray Hopkins said. “But nonetheless, it’s a costly endeavor. But you need to start somewhere. To be the first ones to do a 3D game, and learn from that experience, it’s justified.”
But unlike 3D in the movies, where “Avatar” and others have proved their boxoffice mettle, 3D TV has a long way to go before it becomes as mainstream as the DVR. High-def TV had the advantage of the digital TV transition, which pushed millions to buy digital-ready (and often HD) TVs.
Studies have shown that fewer than 10% of consumers say they are interested in 3D. To buy one costs upward of $3,000, a difficult sell in this economy and one that comes 13 months after the drawn-out digital transition. Even after getting a 3D TV, the cable or satellite connection has to be 3D-enabled, and viewers have to wear special glasses. They risk dizziness if the telecast isn’t painstakingly, artfully produced.
Networks will have to see benefits — most importantly in ad revenue — before they invest in 3D. Production costs in 2010, and the foreseeable future, are high. Each 3D sports production requires separate camera placements from 2D, two cameras for each position, a separate control room and a raft of staff for an industry that has spent years using technology to do more with fewer employees.
However, 3D is cool.
“It is a more human experience to watch in 3D,” ESPN coordinating producer Phil Orlins said. “You pick up some degree of depth, and the events that allow you to place your cameras at close proximity or move predictably are extremely suited and impactful.”
However, George Hoover, chief technology officer of Pittsburgh-based NEP Broadcasting, noted that unlike their brethren in the movie industry, sports producers often don’t have time to set up a 3D shot. NEP is doing the video for all of the 3D baseball on the West Coast this weekend.
“You have to be concerned about three things,” Hoover said: “The shot you were on, the shot you are on and the shot you are going to be on — so that convergence and depth transitions are pleasant.” That’s nowhere as easy as it looks, and lessons are learned each time out.
Shanks thinks that 3D might not be an every-day event, at least not now.
“We think that 3D works on the big events, a few hours at a time, big 3D movies and very important sporting events,” the Fox exec said. “It’s not going to be every time you sit down to watch a show, you’re going to immediately pick up the glasses.”
Madison Avenue isn’t exactly racing to embrace the technology.
Fox’s 3D telecast won’t have ads. YES won’t go to a commercial break; the announcers will talk baseball between innings. Only ESPN will run a pod of 3D creative, from Sony, Gillette and Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” plus its own 3D “This Is SportsCenter” ad featuring Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier. Ads must be in 3D so that viewers don’t have to keep taking glasses on and off.
“Right now there’s no ROI,” said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at media buyer Horizon Media. “These companies are banking on this being a killer app going forward, and they’re getting a head start in providing this. But it’s a risk. Is it going to be like laserdisc players? Who knows. But I think it’s worth the investment.”
No one will know for sure how many people will be watching the 3D telecasts. Nielsen doesn’t measure it. There is some data from DirecTV, Comcast and AT&T on how many customers have called to activate 3D service. YES estimates between 10,000 and 100,000 3D sets have been sold in the New York region.
“How many will be watching the Yankees game? It’s obviously popular programming, but whether we get 10,000 or 100,000, I don’t know,” Hopkins said.
Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at the NPD Group, said the jury’s out on how quickly 3D sports will overcome the technological and financial hurdles to reach a foothold similar to the movies.
“There’s a school of thought that says it’s a compelling enhancement. It literally adds a dimension to the game that wasn’t there before,” he said. “It’s probably too early to say whether all sports will be in 3D. But certainly major sporting events are among the best candidates.”
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