How Important Are Sports for 3DTV?16 Apr, 2011 By: Chris Tribbey
Gaming, animation and action films have earned their share of attention for 3D in the home to date, but Lee Berke believes the success of 3DTV will largely hinge on one category: sports.
If the home entertainment industry wants to gauge the future of 3DTV, Berke, a sports media consultant out of Scarsdale, N.Y., points to the past.
“Sports programming has been a key component for driving the success of virtually every new media technology over the past 90 years, from analog radio to broadcast television to cable, satellite, broadband and wireless,” said Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media.
“Given that track record, sports will have to be relied upon by 3DTV to achieve a critical mass of acceptance by consumers.”
All four major American sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey — have been broadcast in 3D, along with college football and basketball, professional golf, FIFA World Cup soccer, the Winter X Games, NASCAR and professional boxing, all in the past year.
“Just as sports were an early driver for HDTV, sports appears to be the same for 3DTV, some of that having to do with the overlapping demographic profile of the primary early adopter of most new technologies also being primarily a male sports fan,” said Scott Hettrick, publisher and editor-in-chief of HollywoodInHiDef.com.
That’s what ESPN was banking on when it launched the very first 3D network in summer 2010, available to customers with AT&T U-Verse, Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable, with Verizon FiOS set to carry it this year. ESPN has since announced it will expand its programming line-up to 24 hours a day.
A November 2010 study conducted by ESPN backed up its decision to launch a 3D channel, finding that ads viewed in 3D were more likely to be remembered by viewers, and products advertised in 3D were more likely to be purchased.
“The results from this comprehensive research project support what we have said time and time again — fans have a higher level of enjoyment when viewing 3D,” said Artie Bulgrin, SVP of ESPN Research and Analytics. “Plus, for advertisers, this study provides good news on the level of fan engagement when viewing 3D ads.”
ESPN hasn’t cornered the 3D sports market: Cablevision broadcast an NHL game in 3D in March 2010, Comcast followed shortly after with The Masters in 3D in April 2010, CBS Sports and Panasonic teamed up to broadcast last September’s U.S. Open in 3D, and Cox Communications partnered with Versus in November to broadcast the Oregon vs. Cal college football game in 3D. DirecTV’s n3D channel also features racing and 2010 Winter Olympic 3D coverage, and is working on a 3D surfing series. Comcast’s 24-hour Xfinity 3D channel made its official debut Feb. 20 with the 3D broadcasts of the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic.
“Like high-def, new TV technology will be driven by early adopters, and that means sports fans,” said Steve Sechrist, senior analyst with research firm Insight Media, which helps oversee the 3D@Home Consortium.
But there are concerns with sports and 3D in the home, the need for glasses possibly chief among them.
A September 2010 study by The Nielsen Co. found that having to wear 3D glasses was a concern among 57% of respondents. A lack of 3D content was a concern cited by just 44% of respondents.
“There’s an inherent problem with watching sports with any kind of glasses,” Hettrick said. “Most people watching sports are moving around a lot, looking away a lot to talk to someone in the room, getting up to go to the bathroom and get something to eat. So, repeatedly taking off and putting on any kind of glasses is a bother.”
But, for now, glasses and 3DTVs are a necessity, which leaves viewers with two choices: passive or active shutter. The quality of sets using cheaper, theater-like passive glasses is suspect, Hettrick noted, while active-shutter glasses — the battery powered, more expensive glasses used with most current 3DTV sets — will shut themselves off if the wearer moves too far away from the set-up, he said.
“Broadcast 3D, including sports, will really show the difference between active and passive glasses,” said Home Theater Forum’s Adam Gregorich. “Currently most broadcast channels, including ESPN 3D, use the side-by-side method, which uses a 960 x 1080 resolution.
“Active-shutter glasses allow viewers to see that, but since the passive glasses only show an interlaced signal, that resolution is cut even further to 960 x 540, a noticeable drop. When it comes to watching sports, viewers with passive glasses are going to be forced to choose between picture quality or 3D.”
Even with the loss of resolution, there’s an advantage to passive glasses and 3D sports, especially with large gatherings, according to Bryan Gonzalez, director of social and digital media labs for the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California (ETC@USC).
U.K. satellite operator Sky launched a 3D channel in mid-2010 and reportedly bought 15,000 47-inch LD920 3DTVs from LG Electronics, specifically for public venues, namely pubs. The LD920 uses passive glasses and the idea of passive 3DTV sets for public venues makes sense, Gonzalez said.
“You can order a beer and a pair of cheap $10 glasses,” he noted. “You definitely don’t want a pair of $100 [active shutter] glasses at a bar.”
The quality of sports broadcasts is another pressing concern.
“Many 3D manufacturers that I have spoken with have expressed concern over broadcasting games in 3D,” said Ron Epstein with the Home Theater Forum. “Apparently, all those quick multiple shots used in game coverage will have an ill-effect on viewer eyes that cannot quickly adjust to the changes. 3D works
much better with long shots concentrated on a wider area of the field rather than quick changes.”
ETC@USC’s Gonzalez said ESPN has been the only producer of live 3D sports to get it right, and “a lot of the other production crews need to catch up.”
But it hasn’t been cheap for ESPN to be the worldwide leader in 3D sports: up until just recently ESPN has had to employ two crews for 3D events, to supplement its standard 2D coverage. That changed with the Feb. 18 3D airing of “Friday Night Fights.”
“[The] boxing broadcast, and some upcoming college basketball games, will be captured only in 3D as a cost-saving measure, with the 2D broadcast picking up only the left-eye camera,” Hettrick said. “[The producers] believe it will be one of the best showcases because every camera angle will be very close, which always delivers a stronger impact than the wide shots necessary so often in football, baseball, basketball.”
Delivering enjoyable 3D sports broadcasts for the nascent 3DTV industry is important if this technology wants to be mainstream. It’s a live-event, broadcaster’s game, with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment releasing the lone 3D sports Blu-ray Disc to date (The Official 2010 FIFA World Cup Film).
As Insight’s Sechrist noted: “Isn't the real value in sports not knowing the outcome?”