ESPN’s 3D Efforts Come to Fruition With Network Launch

ESPN’s experiments in 3D are ready for a real payoff as the network has committed to producing at least 85 events in 3D between the kickoff of the World Cup on June 11, 2010, and June 11, 2011. For Chuck Pagano, ESPN VP for technology, and his team, the next few months will be challenging. But after the launch of a facility in Los Angeles last year and a massive Digital Center in Bristol, CT, the move to HD, and more, tackling new technologies is old hat.

“It’s déjà vu,” he says. “Like when we went HD and even back to 1979 when we launched our master control. We’re getting ready for the tsunami of 3D devices [being introduced at CES], and we know sports fans will be buying them.”

While Pagano and his team focus on the technical side of 3D, others in the company are deep into negotiations with distribution partners. One thing is clear: the network is looking to deliver 3D content over a dedicated ESPN 3D channel, even if it is dark most of the time. Sharing a network with other 3D-content providers is not in the current business plan.

Pagano says there is much work to be done between now and June 11. Unlike current ESPN networks, the 3D channel will not have a master-control area.

“Our primary focus will be bringing in the 3D event from the field and passing it through to the customer,” says Pagano. That workflow is reminiscent of ESPN’s early HD broadcasts, when there wasn’t even an HD tape deck at the ESPN headquarters to record the HD feed.

Among the unresolved issues is selecting a compression codec that will encode and decode the 720p/60-frame-per-second 3D signal.

Also unresolved is how ESPN will minimize costs of the 3D productions. “Part of our desire is to see how we can make the 2D and 3D productions as efficient as possible,” says Pagano. He says an experiment will take place in February to learn just how closely 2D and 3D productions can exist.

Another challenge is seeing what it takes to maximize image quality. For example, one of the considerations in delivering 3D signals is whether to use an over/under system, where the frame is split horizontally, or a side-by-side system, where the frame is split vertically. Pagano’s personal preference is for a side-by-side approach because it does not cut down on horizontal resolution. It remains to be seen, however, which system cable and satellite service providers will embrace.

Despite the challenging road ahead, Pagano is proud of the steps ESPN has taken. “I’m totally thrilled,” he says. “We have a great bunch of talented people who are looking at what technologies will connect with fans, and they were all over HD before it was even a discussion point.”