ESPN Jumps Into the 3DTV Game
That new channel, aptly called ESPN 3D, will kick off June 11 with coverage of the World Cup match between tournament host South Africa and Mexico. ESPN says it may produce up to 25 more World Cup matches in 3D during the summer tourney. ESPN also expects to feature events from its Summer X Games franchise, as well as a number of college basketball and college football games, including next year's BCS National Championship game, in 3D. (See ESPN Sets 3D Network Launch.)
ESPN's decision to launch a 3D channel comes amid the buzz of James Cameron's Avatar on the big screen, and a tsunami of 3D-capable televisions that will be on display at this week's Consumer Electronics Show, with many of those models slated to reach the market by this summer.
ESPN's move into 3D closely mimics the way the network got into HD about seven years ago. Back then, ESPN announced its first HD network about six months ahead of the launch, committing to offer roughly 100 events in the new format during the first year.
ESPN 3D not 24/7… yet
But, despite those similarities, there's also one big difference this time around: ESPN 3D, at least at the start, won't be simulcasting programming 24/7 from an existing 2D network. Instead, ESPN 3D will become active only when an event is being broadcast in 3D. After that event, the network will shut down until the next scheduled 3D event comes along.
"That's out of respect to the bandwidth needs of our distributors," Bryan Burns, ESPN's VP of strategic business planning and development, tells Cable Digital News. So MSOs, telcos, and satellite TV providers that opt to carry ESPN 3D will only need to clear up room when the channel actually has something available in 3D.
ESPN is not saying how many more 3D events it expects to produce beyond its original commitment. For now, the new channel will concentrate on supporting live events and getting a 3DTV-powered truck built that can go from game to game, and then absorbing the lessons learned before deciding to tackle anything bigger.
Plus, ESPN's distribution partners need to be on the same page from a technology and marketing standpoint. It's not been decided whether ESPN 3D will be offered as part of a standard sports package or as a premium service.
However, Burns didn't rule out that ESPN might produce some original series and shows, such as the World Series of Poker, in 3D sometime later. That series, as an example, started off in standard-def, but ESPN eventually began to produce it in HD, as well, about three years ago.
"I think this [ESPN's 3D TV content] will follow along the path of what we learned during our HD experience," Burns says, noting that ESPN delivered more than 1,400 hi-def telecasts in 2009.
Ahead of 3D standards
Although the launch of ESPN 3D is still six months away, the network has yet to make any final decisions on which 3D technologies it will use to produce its first slate of events. But ESPN, which has spent two years working on its 3D strategy, has some good ideas on where it will end up. Whatever direction ESPN chooses, consumers will likely need a new TV or set-top, plus the special glasses, to render the 3D images properly.
"I think we're on final approach… to pick these various technologies and decide what we're going to use on the road," Burns says.
And ESPN will likely be making those decisions ahead of any final industry standards, at least as far as cable is concerned.
About a year ago, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) kicked off a subcommittee charged with investigating what standards would be required to put 3D content on cable networks. However, that work has yet to produce a formal standard-setting effort. (See SCTE Looks at 3DTV .)
More recently (today, in fact), CableLabs announced the creation of a 3DTV implementation lab at its facility in Louisville, Colo. Although those tests will cover a range of technical scenarios, CableLabs says the work so far already has determined that "many" of the digital boxes already deployed by MSOs are capable of processing 3D TV signals in "frame-compatible formats" -- formats that carry separate left and right video signals within the video frame used to convey a conventional (2D) high-definition signal. (See CableLabs Sets Up 3DTV Lab.)
The advantage there is that the format can be piped in on existing cable plant and equipment as if it were a 2D HDTV signal, with little to no change to cable's legacy VoD or switched digital video (SDV) fabric, CableLabs claims.
Those 3DTV signals should also work equally well with displays using active shutter glasses and those using passive polarized glasses, according to CableLabs' VP of consumer video technology, David Broberg.
CableLabs, however, is also looking to define a longer-term solution that will support 3D content that can be delivered at resolutions and frame rates as high as 1080p60 for both eyes.
Regardless of what standards or specs govern the future of 3DTV, Burns is confident that ESPN won't be caught off guard, because the company already has its people on several 3D-related boards and committees, including one that's leading the 3D group at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) .
"Our voice is clearly being heard as standards are being selected," Burns asserts.
More 3D nets in the works
ESPN is an early adopter of 3DTV, but it's not the only programmer that's getting ready to take a run at the technology. Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK), Sony Corp. of America , and IMAX announced plans today to take things further with a 24/7, dedicated 3DTV network for the U.S. They expect to launch the channel sometime in 2011. (See Discovery, Sony, IMAX Team for 3DTV.)
Under the deal, all three will pitch in content. However, Discovery will handle the affiliate sales and technical support functions of the channel, with Sony handling advertising and sponsorship sales. They intend to provide more details on those plans in a press conference slated for later today.
DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) reportedly has a 3D channel of its own in the works. The satellite TV giant has yet to confirm those plans, but it's expected that it will make a formal announcement at this week's gadgetfest in Las Vegas.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News