ESPN, Discovery to launch 3D TV networks

ESPN 3D targets 85 live sports events, Discovery starts 2011

ESPN and a venture spearheaded by Discovery, Sony and Imax are looking to put 3D television on the map with the launch of the first two 3D networks.

The sports programmer said Tuesday that it will introduce ESPN 3D in the summer; the Discovery-led venture will launch its 3D network in 2011.

The announcements represent a potentially game-changing addition to the TV landscape, which only recently has fully embraced another technological shift -- to HD programming. Industry watchers expect it to take some time before 3D takes hold, but the efforts by big industry names in this space will be key to igniting consumer interest in the new technology.

The dueling announcements have the two companies -- each an HD pioneer in its own right -- claiming to have the first 3D network. ESPN has an earlier launch date, but its network will go dark when not airing 3D programming. Discovery says its channel will be the first dedicated 3D network on the air 24/7.

Disney-owned ESPN said ESPN 3D will feature at least 85 live sporting events in its first year, beginning June 11 with the first 2010 FIFA World Cup match, which pits host South Africa against Mexico. Other 3D events will include 25 other World Cup matches, the 2011 college football national championship game, college basketball and football contests and the Summer X Games.

Discovery founder and chairman John Hendricks stressed that the foray into 3D TV is in line with the company's early adoption of other technologies, "including the first suite of digital channels launched in 1996 and the first 24/7 basic cable HD channel in 2002."

Similarly, Bryan Burns, VP strategic business planning and development at ESPN, said 3D "feels like very familiar territory to us" given his company's HD experience. "We hope ESPN 3D will be a stimulus for the biz to move forward" with the technology, he added.

There are significant hurdles for the adoption of 3D TV, however: To watch the content, viewers must have a 3D-ready TV set and 3D glasses and might need a new set-top box.

In addition, the extra cost of producing content in 3D could mean that distributors will pass those costs on to consumers, resulting in another pay cable tier similar to current HD packages.

But it's not a coincidence that both 3D TV initiatives were unveiled on the eve of this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Burns said he hopes that CES will shine a spotlight on 3D TV technology. And in a conference call Tuesday, executives from the Discovery-Sony-Imax venture cited Consumer Electronics Assn. estimates that about 2.2 million 3D TV sets will be sold this year, with more than 25% of sets sold being 3D-enabled by 2013.

Hendricks estimated that about 5 million households in the U.S. could adopt 3D TV within three years. After that, he said about 20 million additional homes could sign up for 3D "pretty quickly" before the technology goes mass market in about five to 10 years.

Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav said the venture's 3D network will be positioned as a general entertainment channel and wants to be broadly distributed rather than being a premium service.

Officials with both ventures predicted strong interest, but nobody wanted to speculate on the timing of first carriage deals.

All companies involved in Tuesday's 3D announcements also expressed confidence in consumers' willingness to put on 3D glasses for quality content.

The boxoffice success of "Avatar," which has passed $1 billion worldwide and is poised to become the No. 2-grossing movie of all time behind director James Cameron's own "Titanic," has helped prove the 3D format can draw viewers -- at least to movie theaters.

"Consumers seem quite willing to put on 3D glasses in theaters ... for the right experience," Imax CEO Richard Gelfond said.

James Hibberd in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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