ESPN Launching a 3D Network
ESPN is going 3D. The venerable sports network will launch ESPN 3D on June 11 with a World Cup soccer match, creating what it says will be the first all three-dimensional television network to the home.
ESPN 3D expects to showcase at least 85 live sporting events during the first year. There'll be no reruns initially, so the network will be dark when there's no 3D event. Among other events planned for 3D broadcast: the Summer X Games (extreme sports), NBA games, college basketball and college football.
ESPN is committing to the 3D network through June 2011. "We're going to assess the viability of this as we did with all our businesses," says Sean Bratches, an ESPN executive vice president for sales and marketing. He's confident that sports fans will immerse themselves in the technology.
To do that, you'll need a more expensive 3D-capable television such as those that industry heavyweights will show off this week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Viewers also must don special 3D glasses.
Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro says the ESPN 3D announcement parallels where HDTV was six years ago. "This is a turning point for 3D," he says.
Paul Liao, CEO of the CableLabs consortium of cable operators, says that while 3D movies are paramount to the success of 3D in the home, live sports "will engage the consumer to a degree that has been unprecedented."
There are challenges. You may need a new set-top box to watch 3D. It's unclear if you'll have to pay a premium. ESPN says it expects deals with distributors will be in place prior to launch.
Broadcasting live events in 3D comes at an extra cost. Locations where cameras are placed to capture a regular high-definition sporting event don't necessarily translate to a 3D broadcast. If simultaneously broadcasting in regular HD, ESPN needs to employ a second production crew, and different announcers, for the 3D telecast.
ESPN, which is part of Disney, has been testing 3D for more than two years.
In September, it produced the University of Southern California vs. Ohio State football game in 3D, shown on the USC campus and in theaters in Ohio, Texas and Connecticut. In surveys afterward, most viewers said they were "wowed." But some said quick camera changes "were a little hard on the eyes." And the research suggested that willingness to pay for 3D was "extremely dependent on (the) matchup."
"We don't have all the answers," says Chuck Pagano, ESPN's executive vice president for technology. "We asked the same questions back in the HD days. Is this going to be better? Is this going to be worse?"
ESPN likely won't have the 3D stage to itself. The HD Guru3D website reports that DirecTV will launch a 3D channel at CES. Robert Mercer, a spokesman for the satellite provider, wouldn't confirm that. But he says "3D is something we are very interested in."