Last month, ESPN announced that it will be shutting down its 3-D channel by the end of the year. Commentators proclaimed this news as the death knell for 3-D television. I think they’re wrong. ESPN’s move won’t kill 3-D TV. If I thought that were the case, as CTO of a company that’s in the business of producing 3-D content, including that for broadcast, I’d be worried. I’m not. ESPN’s announcement may well be the thing that kicks 3-D TV programming and adoption into high gear.
ESPN’s foray into 3-D TV, which began in 2010, was doomed from the outset. ESPN focused on marketing and keeping costs low. While they did spend a good deal of money on their foray into 3-D, they put little effort into fundamentally understanding the product or recognizing how different it should be from their 2-D shows, either creatively or technically. 3-D is not for every show produced, 24/7, and it isn’t about just adding the perception of a little depth to a 2-D show. ESPN didn’t understand that it didn’t just have to deliver a new product; it needed to build an audience from scratch. Unfortunately, it didn’t understand what that audience wanted and how that was something different from 2-D. 3-D, especially sports programming, is about spectacle (pun only partially intended). The experience must be both significantly different and more immersive than what can be provided in 2-D.
ESPN claims that because an audience never came to its channel, there is no audience for 3-D sports. But that’s not the experience providers of high-quality 3-D sports elsewhere in the world, like Sky Sports in the UK and CCTV in China. And, as amply demonstrated by the total lack of promotion of ESPN’s London Olympics 3-D coverage (yes, there was some and it was available fairly broadly), building an audience for 3-D was not ESPN’s primary focus. Consider, by contrast, Sky Sports—that network had no Olympics broadcast rights in the U.K., so could not profit directly from 3-D coverage of the event. Still, Sky Sports was interested in broadening the U.K. audience for 3-D and in making sure that audience had a quality experience, so the network offered the BBC free use of its 3-D production resources.
And think about the very beginning of ESPN's 3-D foray, in 2010. ESPN launched 3-D programming for its U.S. audience on the back of one of the biggest sporting events in the world, the FIFA World Cup. The reason to use a high-profile event like that is because of the mass appeal. But two things need to be true: the mass appeal has to be to an audience that you want and you have to provide that audience with something new and compelling. There is one country in the world where the FIFA World Cup does not appeal to nearly everyone: ESPN’s target audience in the United States. To make matters worse, that initial production was both barely different from a 2-D show and so technically bad that it turned off even die-hard 3-D fans, who typically will watch nearly anything. ESPN didn’t give itself enough time or spend enough money to pull together an adequate—forget excellent—3-D broadcast for that event; a mistake it has often repeated. Just how bad were ESPN’s 3-D productions? Well, since 2011, other 3-D broadcasters have refused to rebroadcast ESPN 3-D's feed of the X Games, their flagship 3-D production, because the 3-D technical quality did not meet the various broadcasters minimum standards.
ESPN's more recent decision to do "5-D production", which uses 3-D equipment to produce a 2-D show and also get a 3-D output (of the 2-D composition), was the final nail in the coffin. 5-D demonstrated clearly that ESPN cared more about the cost of production than the experience of 3-D and that it didn’t understand what is unique about 3-D. Lately, ESPN has been relying more on real-time 2-D to 3-D conversion, shooting events using 2-D equipment and using image processing to create simulated 3-D. ESPN producers thought that converted 3-D was as good or better than native 3-D. However, conversion merely simulates 3-D using a few of the simpler characteristics of binocular vision. It rarely uses multiple viewpoints and, therefore, cannot provide real depth views. While it can be used to provide continuity between shots, it cannot provide a viewing experience that equals true 3-D. But, for ESPN, it did at least help them avoid alignment problems that it frequently ran into when producing native 3-D broadcasts.
Because of its choice of camera setups, until last year ESPN was able to do very little close-up coverage in 3-D. That's real shame, because close-ups are where 3-D excels in making viewers feel truly immersed in a game. Indeed, for almost all of their shows, ESPN had far fewer camera positions for 3-D than for 2-D, in addition to having fewer graphics and replays. The lack of those graphics and replays—and the fact that those that were used were not native to 3-D—detracts from the experience and withholds some things that the audience has come to expect. 3-D was clearly an inferior experience to the network's 2-D coverage. By doing so little to make the 3-D shows distinct from, and superior to, those in 2-D, how could ESPN hope to attract a new audience, as opposed to simply convincing some part of the 2-D audience to watch the 3-D show? Is it any wonder that advertisers didn’t understand why they should pay anything to be on ESPN 3-D? And, ultimately, that is the name of the game.
I’ve been worried for some time that ESPN 3-D could kill 3-D TV in the US. But perhaps it didn’t quite succeed. By shutting down, ESPN ceases to set a standard that the potential audience thinks is unacceptable. Filling a 24/7 cable channel with bad or marginal 3-D content didn’t do the technology any good; it’s far better to show fewer hours of higher quality programming.
Despite its long history, 3-D is still a new format that is evolving. The place for 3-D content is not on a cable channel—it’s over the Internet, where the audience controls what is delivered, when and from whom, rather than through a medium that must appeal to a contemporaneous audience large enough to justify the use of a limited amount of space.
I still predict that 3-DTV will succeed and that 3-D sports will be very popular. With ESPN 3-D out of the way, those things can finally begin to happen.
Guest blogger Howard Postley is the chief technology officer of 3ality Technica, an integrated 3-D entertainment company that develops technology and techniques for 3-D productions, including sports broadcasting. He is the author of "Sports: 3-D TV’s Toughest Challenge," published in the November 2012 issue of IEEE Spectrum.
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