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Comcast Courts Early 3DTV Adopters

Light Reading
LR Cable News Analysis
Light Reading

NEW YORK -- While new 3DTVs may only be available in a few thousand US homes, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is gearing up to distribute 3D programming and to appeal to early adopters of the technology.

"It's clearly early in the adoption curve. What's important here is to be innovative and drive the technology and demonstrate to our customers that this is available to them," Comcast SVP and GM of video and entertainment services Derek Harrar said today at an event put on by the MSO to demonstrate how it will deliver 3DTV programming from The Masters golf tournament. (See Masters 3DTV Coverage Exclusive to Cable .)

Asked how many subscribers he expected would be able to view Comcast's 3DTV coverage of The Masters, Harrar said "thousands," which offers an indication on the small fraction of consumers that so far have actually purchased 3D-capable TV sets from manufacturers such as Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC), and (soon) LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) . (See TV Makers: 3D Is Not a Fad.)

But with CE firms bundling 3DTV technology and glasses in new, high-end HDTVs, about 1 million US homes should have 3DTVs by the end of the year, Comcast executives noted, citing recent statistics from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) .

Major programmers are starting to ramp up investments in 3DTV. ESPN plans to launch ESPN 3D in June, timing its debut with the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. And Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK) is teaming up with Sony and IMAX Corp. to launch a general entertainment 3DTVchannel in 2011. (See ESPN Jumps Into the 3DTV Game and Discovery Prez: New 3D Net Will Need 6MHz .)

DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) is the first distributor to announce a carriage deal for ESPN 3D. Comcast hasn't announced deals to carry ESPN 3D or any other linear 3DTV programming, other than what it will offer from The Masters next month. But Harrar hinted Wednesday that the nation's largest cable MSO would carry new 3DTV networks that are already under development. (See DirecTV Gets More 3DTV Game .)

"We're talking with all of the people that DirecTV talks to," Harrar said. "We’ll all have the same content."

Asked if Comcast would consider charging a premium for 3DTV programming, Harrar said the MSO is still studying distribution models. But he noted that Comcast hasn't previously charged a premium for 3DTV programming, pointing to the 3D movies and events Comcast has offered subscribers using more traditional anaglyphic 3D technology. (See Comcast Tries On 3D VoD .)

New 3DTVs can display programming produced in both side-by-side and top-bottom formats. Comcast's 3D Masters coverage will be produced in side-by-side format. Augusta National contracted ESPN to produce the 3D version.

"We’ve chosen side-by-side here because of the availability of multiplex and transmission equipment," said Comcast fellow Mark Francisco.

The 3D Masters will run in 1080i side-by-side format. But Francisco said Comcast is also looking at other 3D formats, including content that's delivered in 720p.

In its 3D demo today in SportsNet New York's Manhattan studios, Comcast had 3D video that Augusta National Golf Club supplied for The Masters production running on 3DTVs and a laptop computer connected to a 3D display. A pre-production Panasonic 3DTV required passive RealD glasses that cost $1 each to view images in the three-dimensional format. And it had an LG 3DTV that required active shutter glasses, which cost about $150.

Asked if Comcast would consider leasing the more expensive active 3D glasses to consumers, since CE vendors only include one pair with each new 3DTV that relies on those glasses, Harrar said, "I never even thought about it. It's a challenging thing because people lose them."

While Harrar said live sports programming such as The Masters would work well with linear 3D channels, he was bullish on the prospects of distributing video-on-demand 3D programming. Comcast plans to offer subscribers video-on-demand (VoD) highlights in 3D each day from The Masters.

"The most likely viewership pattern is going to be on-demand. You're going to want to get the family together and hit play. It's a natural for on-demand," Harrar said.

Also worth noting from Comcast’s 3DTV presentation Wednesday:

  • Comcast executives anticipate 3D networks occupying half of a 6MHz channel, noting that it expects 3D to use the same amount of bandwidth as 2D-HDTV networks. "It will be exactly the same as carrying another HD channel," Harrar said.

  • Francisco said Comcast is developing a 3D interactive program guide, which displays program listings that appear to jump off the screen.

  • Comcast SVP of video product management Mark Hess said the Denver-based Comcast Media Center (CMC) will also distribute 3D coverage of The Masters via fiber to Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) and Canadian MSO Shaw Communications Inc. . Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cox Communications Inc. are also on board, and Comcast plans to offer the feed to other cable MSOs.

  • Francisco said Web surfers with new 3D computer displays will need a 4.5-Mbit/s connection to view the 3D programming at its best quality level via Masters.com. There will also be a version available for users with connections running 2 Mbit/s and slower, he added.

  • Comcast, Augusta, and their technology partners plan to host several VIP viewing receptions at venues nationwide. Consumers will also be able to check out the return of Tiger Woods and other competition from the tournament at Sony Style retail stores.

— Steve Donohue, Special to Light Reading Cable

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