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Discovery Prez: New 3D Net Will Need 6MHz

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LR Cable News Analysis
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1/6/2010
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Cable operators will need to dedicate 6MHz of bandwidth -- equal to a full analog channel -- in order to carry an upcoming, full-time 3D network from Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK), Sony Corp. of America , and IMAX Corp., executives suggested late Tuesday. (See Discovery, Sony, IMAX Team for 3DTV.)

However, the unnamed channel, which is scheduled to launch in 2011 and be delivered in MPEG-4, would demand the same amount of bandwidth as a high-definition channel, according to Discovery president David Zaslav, who said he’ll begin shopping the channel to cable and satellite distributors on Wednesday.

Those statements, however, do raise questions about how much bandwidth the new network will truly require. Depending on channel mixes, MSOs tend to multiplex up to three MPEG-2 high-definition television channels into one 6MHz slot, though a new breed of encoders from suppliers such as Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) are promising capacities that allow 4:1 HD compression. Although Discovery says its new 3D channel will demand the same amount of spectrum as a regular HD feed, the suggestion that the network will require a full 6MHz channel, which holds about 38Mbit/s of data, appears to indicate that it will require much more bandwidth headroom than a traditional 2D HD network does now.

If the new network will really require a full 6MHz, it probably won't be an easy sell early on. Although Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), and other MSOs are using tools like analog reclamation and switched digital video (SDV) to free up bandwidth for more HD channels and services like Docsis 3.0, they still don't have much spectrum sitting idle for a new service that will likely benefit a relatively small batch of consumers during the budding days of 3DTV. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan .)

Discovery founder John Hendricks said he expects the channel will be popular immediately with early adopters, but allowed that it will be several years before 3DTV reaches a mass market audience.

“I’m convinced that in five to 10 years from now we’ll see a mass rollout of this,” Hendricks said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. He repeatedly described the experience of 3DTV as “closer to reality” television.

Hendricks noted that there are 5 million homes that are viewed as early adopters in the United States, which he said “will go after 3D very quickly in the next 24 to 36 months.” About 20 million affluent homes will “come out pretty quickly” after the early adopters, he added.

Zaslav said Discovery, Sony, and IMAX are banking on consumers that buy the new 3DTVs on display this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to help drive carriage deals for the channel. “They [3DTV owners] will call their distributor,” Zaslav predicted.

Zaslav wouldn’t detail the programming strategy for the network, other than noting that it will be a “general entertainment channel.”

In Tuesday's announcement, the companies said that the channel would include motion pictures. While IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond pointed to the box office success of Avatar, and noted that Hollywood studios have an additional 30 3D movies in development, he didn’t say whether the channel would bid on Avatar when 20th Century Fox shops the box office hit to cable networks.

The new network -- which Sony hopes will help spur sales of 3DTVs and other electronics -- will also feature natural history, space, exploration, adventure, engineering, children’s, and science and technology programming.

Special glasses will be required
Subscribers will need to wear 3D glasses in order to see the programming the way it’s supposed to be viewed, but Sony CEO Howard Stringer said he sees the day when viewers will be able to watch 3D programming without the glasses. “It’s clearly on the horizon,” Stringer said.

The Discovery, Sony, and IMAX executives didn’t say whether they’ll offer 3D video-on-demand programming to MSOs through their joint venture.

Discovery, Sony, and IMAX said they are equal partners in the venture, and they plan to eventually explore international distribution for 3D programming. Zaslav and Discovery’s team will run affiliate sales and technical support for the channel, which will be packaged with Discovery’s portfolio of 13 U.S. networks.

Sony said it will provide advertising and sponsorship sales support, and that it will look to license TV rights to current and future 3D feature films, music-related 3D content, and game-related 3D content. It’ll also promote the channel at retail stores.

IMAX said it will license TV rights to future 3D films, and that it will promote the channel at its U.S. theaters. It will also supply 3D technology and patents to the venture.

— Steve Donohue, Special to Cable Digital News

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