By Andrew Hampp
When 3-D TV was all the rage earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the conversation was around the technology’s potential. But at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association conference in Los Angeles this week, the conversation has now shifted to 3-D programming’s actual distribution in the home.
ESPN kicked off the second day of the conference with the news that it had inked its first cable distribution deal with Comcast to air ESPN 3D, a cable network that will air live 3-D coverage of key sporting events throughout the year, beginning with the World Cup on June 11. The network is expected to launch in key Comcast markets in June and will be distributed across Comcast’s full digital footprint of 18.9 million homes later this summer.
The Comcast announcement follows ESPN’s earlier deal with satellite provider DirecTV. Sean Bratches, ESPN’s exec VP-sales and marketing, said the network is in active discussions with other distribution partners as well.
In addition to the World Cup, ESPN has committed to airing 85 to 100 events in 3-D over the next year, including the X Games (July 16 to Aug. 1), college basketball’s Old Spice Classic (Nov. 25-28), the 2011 BCS National Championship Game (Jan. 10, 2011) and college basketball’s Big East Tournament (March 8-12, 2011).
Of course, making 3-D content available only goes as far as the number of 3-D-compliant TV sets consumers buy. Derek Harrar, Comcast’s senior VP-general manager of video and entertainment services, said Comcast tested the consumer appetite for 3-D home entertainment recently through airings of five different on-demand programs using an anaglyph 3-D technology, which isn’t as advanced as the technology that will be used going forward. Roughly 16% of the on-demand views came from 3-D, a high percentage compared to the average 25% to 30% of views that come from high-definition video, Mr. Harrar said.
"When there’s substantial viewership like that, we have to pay attention," he said. "Consumers are walking with their fingertips and you get to learn from their viewing habits."
Advertisers are ready to make the leap into 3-D, too. Sony will be one of the first sponsors to air a 3-D TV ad during the World Cup coverage, Mr. Bratches said, with plans already under way for ESPN’s first 3-D promo, for "This Is SportsCenter."
All commercial inventory on ESPN 3D will be shot in 3-D, Mr. Bratches added. No spots will be repurposed or converted from 2-D. "We don’t think that’s an experience that is meritorious to the platform," he said. "From a consumer experience standpoint, we have one time to get this right, and the consumer experience is critically important to us as we look at the ESPN brand, as well as our advertising partners and distribution partners as we look at their brands."
While he would not comment on specific production costs, Mr. Bratches indicated that the cost of 3-D programming would come at a premium, and that the telecasts would be shot differently than a 2-D or HD telecast. "You need to have cameras in position where the action is coming at you," he said. "Otherwise the consumer experience is insignificant."
3-D glasses for the network will be distributed by the TV manufacturers themselves, Mr. Harrar added. LG Electronics, Panasonic, Mitsubishi and Sony have all announced aggressive plans to roll out 3-D TV sets this year, with LG in particular anticipating worldwide sales of 40,000 3-D sets by end of 2010.
Comcast also announced a new iPad app that would enable viewers to program their TVs from their Wifi-enabled iPads and invite friends to virtual viewing parties, as well as ambitious plans to upgrade its on-demand offerings to 90,000 hours of content, including 11,000 movies. "We’ve invested a lot over the last few years in our video infrastructure and we’re at a moment where that’s staring to pay off," Mr. Harrar said. "Our intent in everything we’ve done is we are going to lead in the video space."#