3D Television Networks: A Quiet Death

By Chris Blair

I published the original post below in July of 2010, saying I couldn’t imagine how 3D television networks could find an audience, and more importantly, lure enough advertisers to survive. Predictably, ESPN3D announced on Wednesday that it would soon be shuttered. Their official statement cited, “limited viewer adoption.” That’s fancy talk for, “nobody was watching.”

I was utterly villified in a forum thread on Creative Cow for my disparaging views about 3D back about the same time as my original post.


Most people took issue with the fact that I disagreed with the consensus that 3D in TV and movies was going to soon be the norm for production, and that if we didn’t all embrace it we’d be left behind. My argument at the time was that our clients weren’t even asking for (or using) HDTV, much less 3D. I also questioned how the economics of 3D television, even at the network level, would ever produce profits. Above are links to the now amusing threads in which many on the Cow predicted 3D television was “the future of broadcasting and production.”

What’s amusing to me now is how 4K production is wrestling the mantle away from the 3D fad. All the talk in trade magazines and forums is that if you don’t gear up to shoot 4K you’re going to be left behind. Heck….we STILL have clients who don’t want or use HD! They continue to ask for standard definition DVDs for presentation and field use.

Now before anyone squawks….yes…we shoot and post almost everything in HD and suggest blu-ray to clients, but seems adoption of blu-ray players isn’t much wider than 3D TV! And what about HD in television spot placement? Since 2011 we’ve produced virtually all spots in HD, but about 50% of the TV stations and networks we buy still down-rez those HD spots (yes to SD) for ingest into their playout servers, then scale them back up for playback on their HDTV feed.

And many large companies that buy local ad time on network affiliates continue to skip HDTV ad placement, mainly due to the added bandwidth expense of digitally sending spots via companies like DG and Extreme Reach. Last time we checked, it cost roughly $30-35 to send an SD spot and nearly $100 to send an HD one. We used to send out over 300 spots for one client bi-weekly. Using those numbers, sending in SD is a savings of $21,000 a week, or for 26 spot sends per year, $546,000. Put in those financial terms, it’s easy to see why an advertiser would opt to supply SD spots to stations considering half of them are going to down-rez the HD spot anyway!

Below is the original post published in July of 2010:

By Chris Blair

I must admit, I’m not much of a fan of 3D in movies and television. About the only time I’ve ever enjoyed it is at amusement park rides and shows, such as Mickey’s Philharmagic at Disney’s Magic Kingdom or Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I’ve also read that shows like Terminator 2: 3D at Universal Studios are great fun. But even then, most of the enjoyment comes from the completely over the top 3D effects.

At the movie theater the much ballyhooed Real3D seems to be more hype than substance, typically dimming the image to the point that it looks muted and muddy. Even worse, the process often distracts from the story rather than enhancing it. That’s not just my opinion either. Film critics like Roger Ebert and renowned filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola have been outspoken critics of 3D. And consider that Coppola made a 3D movie for Disney theme parks starring Michael Jackson back in 1986. The film, called Captain EO, was recently put back into several of Disney’s parks following Jackson’s death last year!

So now here we are almost 2 months into the launch of the first 3D TV Network, ESPN3D. Coupled with the craze surrounding 3D movies, I figured it would be a good time to see how 3D television is doing. But after spending nearly an hour searching online, there’s surprisingly very little in the way of news or reviews about any of the networks or programming.

Discovery Channel’s 3D network doesn’t have a name and hasn’t even announced an official launch date, only saying it will be sometime in “early 2011.” ESPN3D debuted in early June with 3D broadcasts of the World Cup. I can’t help but notice the lack of fanfare about it both then and now. How many people watched a World Cup match in 3D? According to industry reports, not many. Official estimates were under a million. And remember, soccer is hands down the most popular spectator sport in the world and the World Cup the most popular sporting event. ESPN even brought technology journalists to their Bristol, Conn. headquarters to watch one of the matches in 3D, and even those reviews are lukewarm at best. Note that ESPN likely had the room setup for the absolute best possible viewing experience too!

Another popular sporting event that was broadcast in 3D even before the launch of ESPN3D was The Masters. Comcast produced it and while golf doesn’t seem like a prime candidate for 3D, reviews for it were actually better than those of the World Cup. The most common positive comment was that the 3D images showed the topography of the course, which is undulating and hilly, something that’s completely lost in 2D. Many reviewers also said it made distances of shots seem more accurate, meaning if Phil Michelsen was standing 150 yards from the green, when the camera was behind him, the 3D image made that more realistic looking than in 2D, which tends to compress distances.

But the negative comments were plentiful too, with reports of weird double-vision like effects when objects close to the camera (but in soft focus) came into view. Or the same double-vision issues with background elements, like people in the galleries. Perhaps these are technical issues that can be ironed out, but it’s surprising that a notoriously slow-moving sport like golf received better reviews than a fast-moving sport like soccer.

Before it starts to sound like I’m a fan of sports programming in 3D, I’ll go on record as saying a 3D sports channel is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Just go back to the dismal reviews of the 3D imagery in virtually every 3D motion picture released since Avatar. It’s preposterous to think consumers are going to buy new, 3D televisions and those expensive, silly-looking glasses for live sporting events when the process brings nothing but novelty to the experience. And what about advertisers? Will they continue to pay a premium to advertise in 3D events when they see the dismal audience numbers?

I do believe 3D has a place in some types of programming and films, especially animation, children’s movies and computer generated films that allow for virtually limitless possibilities in terms of visual effects. But sports in 3D? Traditional television dramas? I just don’t see how the cost of entry (a new TV, expensive glasses) is worth the novelty effect it provides.

Roger Ebert even argues (quite effectively I might add) that 3D imagery is less realistic to viewers than traditional 2D motion pictures, saying: “Our minds use the principle of perspective to provide the third dimension. Adding one artificially can make the illusion less convincing.” Plus, virtually all 3D that I’ve seen definitely does NOT mimic how human vision works. Hence, I’m often distracted by the different planes of imagery

Here are some other links to interesting articles about 3D, including a review from the Time/CNN blog about the World Cup matches, a list of 3D movies in theaters and theme parks that dates back to the early 1990’s, and a PC Magazine review of the World Cup matches and an earlier 3D sports TV test of an NFL football game.