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TV’s Next Dimension

Oct 5, 2008  •  Post A Comment

With television makers including Samsung and Panasonic this year unveiling flat-screen sets that are capable of displaying 3-D content, the format is widely considered the next leap forward in TV technology.
So far, 3-D programming has been about stunts and gimmicks rather than an earnest play to engage viewers on a deeper level. With growing competition from other media, however, it may be time for the television industry to push forward with 3-D.
The technological advances are the necessary foundation that network programmers need before they invest more in 3-D.
As consumers invest in televisions that can handle 3-D content —either over-the-air or through Blu-ray players—networks in turn will have an incentive to invest in both producing and broadcasting content in 3-D, said Andrew G. Setos, president of engineering at News Corp.’s Fox Group.
“If you go to any 3-D trade show, there are only two things on all of the displays—movies or live sports,” Mr. Setos said. “Three to four years from now, there should be a lot of content in a lot of venues. Don’t sell free over-the-air television short yet.”
The number of 3-D-capable sets sold in the U.S. is expected to surge from about 2 million this year to more than 28 million by 2012, according to Chris Chinnock, president of consultant Insight Media.
With a nod to both the future and the iconic 1950s image of a theater full of moviegoers with disposable red and blue 3-D glasses, some television show producers in the past decade or so have brought back 3-D either for novelty purposes or as a possible shot in the arm for ratings.
Disney-ABC Domestic Television’s “Live With Regis and Kelly” went 3-D for Halloween 2007, looking to spice up their holiday show, which usually contains costume changes for the hosts and audience.
“Live” defrayed the cost of distributing 3-D glasses to viewers with sponsor Walgreens, who provided about 5 million pairs of glasses through the company’s 6,000 stores.
In November 2005, NBC aired an episode of the metaphysical drama “Medium” in 3-D, complete with TV Guide distributing the requisite glasses to interested viewers and images of Rod Serling from “The Twilight Zone” spliced in to introduce the show. Now NBC reportedly is planning to show its action-comedy “Chuck” in 3-D on Feb. 2, the day after the Super Bowl.
Still, networks have made few plans for increased programming. While Walt Disney has been on the forefront of making its theater releases available in 3-D, its ABC unit didn’t respond to requests for details about its 3-D programming strategy. Both CBS and Time Warner’s HBO, which became the first free and pay cable networks to broadcast HD programming in 1999, declined to comment.
Tom Christie, executive vice president of affiliate sales at CBS’ Showtime pay cable unit, called near-term broadcasts of 3-D programming “promotionally opportunistic,” adding that recent investments in HD-related upgrades likely make it prohibitive for networks to spend substantially on 3-D programming any time soon.
Such reluctance proves that Mr. Setos’ forecast may be optimistic, according to some analysts and television executives. Attempts to set 3-D broadcasting standards remain in their infancy, and it may be a decade or more before there are enough 3-D-capable televisions, combined with a set standard for the new technology, for over-the-air 3-D broadcasts to become more than just a novelty.
“From a broadcaster’s perspective, it’s, ‘Show me the money,’” said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group, noting that networks won’t invest in 3-D technology until they see an imminent payback. “One has to look at the progress of HD programming, and how long that took, and then double that for 3-D.”
Additionally, with cable companies’ bandwidth limitations already tested by the proliferation of HD channels, there may be capacity issues related to over-the-air 3-D programming, Mr. Chinnock said.
“One of the big hurdles is how to deliver 3-D content. It’s twice the bandwidth of 2-D,” he said. “You’re going to have to do some compression.”
Still, with television makers and broadcast regulators shooting for a technological platform that will allow customers to ditch the campy glasses and watch 3-D programming in their living rooms with the naked eye, Mr. Setos said. Networks looking to re-create the most realistic images possible will follow suit.
“It’s not about arms thrusting out of the screen,” Mr. Setos said. “This is about what the world is to us in our normal experience.”

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