With 3D Programming, Comcast and DirecTV Choose Reach Over Exclusivity

Comcast has already gotten its feet wet in the 3D space, having distributed the Masters golf tournament in 3D in April, but, this summer, both Comcast and DirecTV will be major players in distributing 3D content. At SVG’s first-annual 3D Sports Transmission and Production Summit on May 20, executives from Comcast and DirecTV took the stage to delineate their 3D strategy moving forward — including their thoughts on sacrificing exclusivity, at least in the short term, in favor of building awareness of the new format.

Best of the Best
“We’re looking at 3D as the next evolution of the best in home entertainment,” explained Jay Kreiling, VP of video services for Comcast. “It represents the best available in content. Sports content needs to be live and on a linear channel, but movies present a huge opportunity from an on-demand perspective.”

DirecTV also is dedicated to 3D and hopes to rapidly expand its footprint. Its first 3D transmission will be 25 matches from the World Cup next month.

“As a company, we are going to do as much of this as makes sense,” said Bob Gabrielli, SVP of programming operations and distribution for DirecTV. “We are out there trying to find products and partnerships. It’s not an issue of having too much content, as we certainly have the capacity and the bandwidth to handle it.”

DirecTV has assigned some networks to 3D channels on its system, such as Discovery3D and ESPN3D, but left some spaces open for growth as well. Similarly, Comcast hopes to load its on-demand VOD servers with such 3D content as movies, which is extremely bandwidth-efficient: “You don’t have to broadcast a channel out there 24/7,” Kreiling pointed out.

Keeping It Clean
Currently, DirecTV has about 20 movies and 20 documentaries in its 3D stable. As live 3D events are completed, the company hopes to acquire the replay rights to them and add them into the mix.

“As we get replay rights, we’ll add those to the 3D channel and do more looping of events,” Gabrielli said. “But we don’t want to muddy the waters with this. We’d rather have less content than throw a bunch of bad content on there.”

Increasing Awareness On Demand
In addition to movies, where Comcast sees a large audience for pay-per-view opportunities, much of the cable service’s first 3D programming will be event-driven, as was the case with the Masters.

“We wrapped it as a television event but also had distribution online at Masters.com,” Kreiling said. “It was a live event available in 3D, but the content was also available on demand in 3D. We took that as an opportunity to create awareness. We try to partner and do things both on TV and online to fit into our overall content strategy of having content available anywhere anytime.”

He also explained that customers who were interested in the 3D content but did not yet have a 3D-capable set could record the event and keep it on their DVR until they purchased a 3DTV. The on-demand viewing option, he added, will help differentiate the 2D-to-3D transition from the SD-to-HD switch, which is still taking place.

Not Necessarily Exclusive
Although Comcast was the first cable provider to announce a deal with ESPN3D, Kreiling said, exclusivity is not necessarily a top priority for the company.

“Some types of content, like the Masters, are one-off opportunities where content will be exclusive to one place or another,” he explained. “But the larger interest is in driving content overall. The interest is in driving distribution as broadly as possible, so it’s not in a producer’s interest at this point to do an exclusive deal.”

At DirecTV, there is a similar feeling that exclusivity should be a future goal for content deals, but today awareness is king.

“If it’s economical for us to do the exclusive amongst everything else we want to do, then we’ll do the exclusive,” Gabrielli said. “But, at this point, there’s not enough content that I think we should be the only people to have it. In the very beginning, we have to share as much of this stuff as we can. Given that we’re all competing, it needs to have a certain swell to it, but we’re less concerned about exclusives now than we will be five years from now when this all takes off.”

In that vein, this summer’s World Cup matches on ESPN3D will be available through both Comcast and DirecTV.

Building a Support Network
DirecTV is currently in the midst of training 12,000 employees at all its call centers to help consumers understand why they may not be seeing 3D properly. The employees will all watch 3D and learn how to ensure that a set-top box interfaces properly with a 3D set, and they should be able to help customers make sure that what they think is 3D truly is 3D.

“We hope that training will be done before June 11,” Gabrielli said.

Those call centers may begin to get busy on that date, which is when the 2010 World Cup begins. How many customers buy 3D-capable sets in time to watch the 3D matches, however, remains to be seen.