Tackling 3-D TV

The idea of broadcasting 3-D television programming in homes took one step closer to reality Thursday with a trial run on the NFL Network. But the gridiron is a fitting test for a technology that faces a veritable football field of obstacles including production and distribution challenges, TV-set penetration and untested revenue models. Those wacky glasses aren't going away just yet, either. And what self-respecting Hollywood-related innovation doesn't come complete with threat of a format war?

Nevertheless, the 3-D broadcast of the San Diego Chargers-Oakland Raiders game capped a week of guarded optimism for an industry that came together days earlier at the 3-D Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles, where DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg issued the closest thing to a rallying cry in a keynote speech, saying, "We can be certain that 3-D will make its way into the home."

Thursday’s trial run with the NFL aims to demonstrate 3-D’s potential

The driver for these efforts is digital technology, which enables a pair of 2-D images to form a single 3-D picture with more precision than previously possible. Digital 3-D has already excited the movie business, which has more than a dozen 3-D releases scheduled for 2009, to be shown in more theaters (in the range of 1,500 in the U.S. and growing). These films might also end up in homes, either via broadcast or disc, though the latter will take a separate though equally arduous path to consumers.

Testing of 3-D broadcasts has already started in theaters, where exhibitors see the potential to offer alternatives to movies. So far, most of the experiments have surrounded the transmission of live 3-D sporting events, via satellite, to a single, closed, 3-D-ready digital-cinema location.

It is widely believed that live 3-D will first come to movie theaters, as it did for Thursday's NFL Net test in theaters in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. But those theaters also displayed the game on TV sets, a demonstration of the end goal for this business.

"Home entertainment is starting to show signs of being involved in live 3-D," said Vince Pace, CEO of 3-D business Pace. "That's a good sign because the industry has had a difficult time demonstrating a revenue stream with closed-viewing events."

Still, to get 3-D to the home means a lot of moving parts that require attention. Global standards-setting body Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers is developing a 3-D mastering standard for combining the two 2-D signals into a 3-D broadcast, whether distributed via broadcast, cable, satellite or the Internet. If SMPTE doesn't move quickly enough, it could find manufacturers such as Real D, Philips and Sensio deploying their own proprietary methods, triggering a format war.

"I think we are going to see format wars next year, " admitted Steve Schklair, CEO of 3Ality Digital Systems. "Ultimately, SMPTE will set a standard and probably those that are deeply embedded in the market will become the standard."

But Sensio executive vp Richard LaBerge begs to differ. "I think the studios will announce their support before a format war begins. I think so because people still have scars from the last one, and going into another war might just kill 3-D."

With the Consumer Electronics Show a month away, the market is getting ready to put its best 3-D foot forward with new consumer technology to support new methods of digital 3-D broadcasting.

"We expect to see a continuation of development of 3-D capable TVs," said David Wertheimer, CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center @ USC, which is building a neutral 3-D TV testing lab.

Rather that asking consumers to chose today's TVs or new 3-D capabilities, the consumer electronics industry is starting to roll out TV sets that support both standard and 3-D viewing. So for those familiar with the "HD ready" slogan for sets that accommodate standard as well as HD imagery, soon "3-D-ready" TV will enter the consumer vocabulary.

These sets are being offered by the likes of Samsung, Mitsubishi, Panasonic and JVC, complete with high-tech eyeglasses that make the classic two-color kind seem primitive by comparison. There are currently 1.9 million 3-D-enabled TVs worldwide according to Insight Media, and that number is expected to reach 40 million by 2011.

Still in development a few years away from consumer availability, are "autostereo" TV sets, which are different from other 3-D ready TV sets in that they would display 3-D without the need for glasses.

Until then, TV networks are content to utilize the classic method of "anaglyph," in which the images are made up of two color layers. In June, Disney Channel showed Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert that way, and an upcoming episode of the NBC series Chuck will do the same.

Still, some do have concerns about reviving the method. Among them: James Cameron. Speaking at the summit this week, the Academy Award-winning director warned attendees not to set the wrong impression about the technology in the minds of consumers. "Every time you do that you stunt the eventual performance of 3-D," he said.

A 3-D breakthrough is largely a chicken-and-egg situation, with set penetration at one end and available content on the other. On the content side, live sports is likely the killer app. Pace and the NBA have already completed several successful tests of live 3-D basketball. He reported that his company has also recently done 3-D tests for the World Wrestling Entertainment and Ultimate Fighting Championship. He added that ESPN has shown interest, with Pace shooting a 3-D college football game last month as an experiment for the broadcaster.

And revealed this week: Fox Sports is planning a 3-D broadcast of college basketball's upcoming championship game to CES and select theaters. Rumors are swirling of interest being shown in giving sports such as soccer, rugby and even Olympic events the 3-D treatment.

Howard Katz, senior vp broadcasting and media operations at NFL, emphasized that this week's game was a test for live broadcasting. But he revealed that one long-term objective is a 3-D doc-style theatrical release about the Super Bowl. He suggested that if 3-D development continues, it might be in the plans for 2010.

Ultimately, the biggest barrier to 3-D going mainstream is the inevitable issue of costs. David Hill, chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Television Group, urged set manufacturers to subsidize equipment purchases, citing how prohibitive just doing HD programming proved to be. Said Hill, "I can't see us making a move to 3-D until a good fairy comes flying into my office with a check."

By Carolyn Giardina, The Hollywood Reporter