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DirecTV Won't Give Cable Access to 3D Nets

It’s taken more than 15 years for DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) to make a major investment in original programming, but when it flips the switch on a trio of dedicated 3DTV networks, only DirecTV subscribers that have also shelled out money for new 3D-capable TVs will be able to watch.

The top satellite-TV provider will mark its 16th anniversary in June, the same month it plans to launch a 24-hour 3DTV network, a pay-per-view 3D channel, and a video-on-demand 3D channel. Looking to spur sales of a line of 3DTVs, Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) is teaming up with DirecTV on the 3D programming venture, which will focus on movies, sports, and general entertainment content. (See DirecTV, Panasonic Team on 3DTV.)

DirecTV has no plans to shop the 3D programming to cable operators for distribution, spokeswoman Jade Ekstedt said Thursday. Keeping the content exclusive will allow DirecTV to market the 3D programming similar to the way it pitches its popular NFL Sunday Ticket package, telling viewers that the only way to see it is on DirecTV. However, a special provision in the latest deal between DirecTV and the NFL does allow consumers who live out of range of DirecTV's satellite service the chance to subscribe to a broadband-delivered version of its out-of-market football package. (See Cable: DirecTV's 'Ticket' to Broadband Content and DirecTV Calls NFL Broadband Play .)

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) and other cable MSOs are subject to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program access rules that require them to offer all programming that isn’t delivered terrestrially to competitors, but DirecTV, Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH), and other cable rivals don't have to play by those rules.

Update: DirecTV distinguishes 'channels' from 'networks'
While DirecTV said that it will look to license some original content from program suppliers for its 3D venture, DirecTV senior vice president of new media and business development Steven Roberts has emphasized (after this story was originally published) that DirecTV views its 3D outlets as "channels," rather than "networks."

“We’re dedicating bandwidth, and on that channel, sometimes, on an occasional basis, there will be an opportunity for our HD homes to view that 3D content really on a sampling basis," Roberts says, referring to the linear channel. "We’re going out and we’re acquiring content from our programming partners, and in some cases working with them to produce original 3D content. And we’ll be putting that content up on this channel."

DirecTV hasn’t settled on a programming schedule for the channel, Roberts says. It may contain some live sports programming, and some programming that could run on a loop. But he concedes that DirecTV will not have enough programming at the time of the launch to program a 24-hour network.

He says DirecTV is just populating that channel on an occasional basis with 3D content. "It’s nothing that we could frankly package up and offer to sell to other distributors."

In its announcement Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, DirecTV boasted that “millions” of its HD subscribers would be able to receive a free software upgrade to their receivers, which would allow them to view 3D programming if they have also purchased a 3DTV from Panasonic or other CE manufacturers that are beginning to embed 3D capabilities.

DirecTV appears to be focusing on a long-term 3D programming strategy, as it’s likely that only a fragment of its customers will own a 3DTV by the time the programming debuts in June.

“It’s too early to anticipate the percentage of subscribers that will likely use the service. Our goal is to make sure that our customers that have purchased 3D hardware have immediate access to 3D programming delivered by us,” Ekstedt said.

Panasonic isn’t the only CE manufacturer looking to boost sales of 3DTVs through pay-TV programming ventures. Sony Corp. of America said Wednesday that it will team up with Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK) and IMAX Corp. on a 3D network set to debut in 2011. ESPN also unveiled plans earlier this week to launch a part-time 3D network in June. (See Discovery Prez: New 3D Net Will Need 6MHz and ESPN Jumps Into the 3DTV Game .)

DirecTV already does feature some original music and event programming on The 101, an exclusive network that it rolled out in 1999. But its 3D network is its biggest foray into original programming to date.

The top U.S. DBS provider said it struck deals with several programmers to supply 3D programming for the linear, VoD, and pay-per-view networks, including CBS, NBC Universal , Fox Sports, Turner Broadcasting System, MTV, live concert promoter AEG Digital Media, and pay-per-view boxing company Golden Boy Promotions.

While Panasonic is working exclusively with DirecTV on its 3D programming venture, the CE giant has worked previously on HDTV marketing campaigns with cable operators. In 2004, it worked on a broad marketing campaign with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications Inc. , Cablevision, Cox Communications Inc. , and five other MSOs on an HD tilt tied to the Summer Olympics.

— Steve Donohue, Special to Cable Digital News

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