LTS 2010: The 3D Debate Rages On

3D. Few terms are more polarizing within the sports production community. Some view 3D as a game changer that will provide a valuable new revenue stream for broadcasters, while others see the format as a red herring that will never be able to justify its unwieldy costs. During the final panel at last week’s League Technology Summit in New York City, five early 3D adopters from ESPN, YES Network, NEP, CBS Sports, and Fox Sports attempted to cut through the rhetoric and get to the core of the 3D debate.

“I don’t see production costs spiraling downward anytime soon,” said Fox Sports SVP of Field Operations Jerry Steinberg. “We spent close to a million dollars on the [3D production of the MLB] All-Star Game [in July]. It’s equipment- and manpower-intensive and it will take a long time for it to become automated and to use less people to do what you need to do to get a quality 3D show.

“How do you make it a business?” asked Steinberg. “Right now it’s like farm subsidies. You’ve got electronics manufacturers who underwrite [the production costs] because they want to sell TV sets. Right now it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The Holy Grail: A Combined 2D-3D Production
Steinberg’s concerns are warranted as networks have yet to flesh out a strategy to incorporate the 3D show into the 2D production. Producing two independent shows has proved to be costly, but the Holy Grail – a combined 2D-3D production – may not be far off. ESPN experimented with the use of a single truck for both shows during a Harlem Globe Trotters Game in Orlando in February while HBO Sports did the same with a boxing match earlier this month.

“Certainly for specific events, deriving the HD 2D telecast from the 3D feed is imminently doable,” said NEP CTO George Hoover. “That was the goal of both research projects like the basketball game at Wide World of Sports and the fight with HBO. The results from the creative community were positive. We need to figure out how to keep the cost of doing this more realistic in a 2D model.”

Who’s Going to Pay for It?
For now, however, most broadcasters must rely on deep-pocketed consumer electronics sponsors like LG, Panasonic, and Sony to fund these 3D productions. LG sponsored CBS’ 3D NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Panasonic sponsored the CBS-DirecTV US Open 3D production, and Sony has served as sponsor to ESPN’s entire 3D channel, which has already produced more than 60 sporting events in 3D. But one LTS attendee posed the question on everyone’s mind: what if Sony wasn’t around to fund the channel?

“If it wasn’t for [Sony], there might have been somebody else,” said Bryan Burns, ESPN’s VP of strategic business planning and development. “They’ve been marvelous to us, but there are other companies who would have stepped into that void had they not.”

Just days before Fox Sports’ 3D All-Star Game show, YES Network, FSN Northwest, and DirecTV produced a pair of New York Yankees-Seattle Mariners baseball games in 3D. Although the production did not employ a CE sponsor like many others, YES Network VP of Operations Ed Delaney admits that no matter how great 3D looks, it still comes down to the funding.

“It was very well received and we’d love to do as much 3D as we can, but it comes down to money,” he said. “We’ll do it as long as someone is willing to fund it. We approached it as a learning experience and a chance to learn a new technology. We learned a lot and one main takeaway was that baseball was incredible in 3D.

Similarities (and Disparities) to HD Transition
Another dividing issue when it comes to 3D is the current landscape’s similarities to the HD transition that began more than a decade ago. While many argue that the two are markedly different and cannot be compared, Burns sees a direct resemblance.

“I’ve heard people say that you can’t compare this to the HD [transition] and that this is not at all like HD. I’d like those people to spend a couple of weeks with me because my life is exactly the same as it was when HD started,” he said. “All the issues are the same. Over the next year, we’re looking to take the next logical steps to make this the business that we think it can be. There are a lot of naysayers and there were naysayers before – we’re not worried about that.”

The most pressing issue that has yet to be resolved is the lack of a true 3D over-the-air broadcast standard. Network affiliates cannot currently transmit 3D, creating an awkward scenario for the major broadcast networks in their attempts to produce 3D sports.

“The standardization process is only in its genesis phase and is a lot farther behind than the HD transition was at the same period of time,” said Bob Seidel, CBS, VP, engineering and advanced technology. “In the early days of HD we also had very few viewers, but at least we had a technical standard for transmission and a government mandate to do that.”

The timeline for the creation of this standard remains fuzzy. The ATSC is currently in the process of fleshing out a standard for over-the-air 3D, but it is likely years away from completion and government approval.

“It’s hard to say [how long it will take]. The whole process [for an HD standard] took four or five years until it reached culmination and approval by the government,” said Seidel. “The ATSC is now looking into how we can go about transmitting it on the digital channel and coexist with HD.

“The challenge is they are essentially trying to fit two images onto one channel,” he explained. “One of the proposals that they are investigating is to do a left eye minus right eye and take that difference and compress that in MPEG4 and then transmit that as an enhancement signal to the HD image.”

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters