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Question marks over ESPN’s 3D future

ESPN’s 3D channel is half way through a one year trial with which to prove a business case or it may be pulled from the air, writes Adrian Pennington.

ESPN’s 3D channel is half way through a one year trial with which to prove a business case or it may be pulled from the air, writes Adrian Pennington. The network, which launched in June carrying 25 FIFA World Cup matches and plans to produce 94 live events in its first year, will have its future reviewed in early 2011.

“We committed to a full year of trial of ESPN 3D and we’re preparing for a second year, but whether this is something we repeat or continue or cut is something that at this point we have very little indication on one way or another,” ESPN Senior Director of Technology, Jonathan Pannaman (pictured), told the Sports Broadcast Europe conference.

“We’re still not sure what makes sense for 3DTV and we don’t yet see a proven ROI,” Pannaman said. “At the same time the buzz is huge and we are hopeful of a huge push by the consumer electronics association ahead of Christmas to market 3DTV sets and services, and we’re seeing more stereo 3D movies and 3D Blu-ray discs come to market.

“Regardless of whether we continue as an event-based network or go to a 24/7 network switch to VoD, we definately have to make production efficiencies to make it work. We’ve also got to get more eyeballs looking at 3D to get some idea of acceptance in the marketplace.”

Pannaman is leading the sportscaster’s 3D task force whose premise he said is to find technology that will allow it “to do ubiquitous production of 3D with an absolute minimum of additional cost” over 2D production.

“That’s a tall order,” said Pannanman. “The current approach is based on the film model but it’s our focus to reduce and change that. We have to bring in more automated rig correction, even to the point where there is a single workstation which can manage many tasks. Currently we are fielding a convergence operator for each camera position. That economy can’t be allowed to continue.”

The broadcaster is using ESPN Wide World of Sports, a new theme park experience at Disney World and the largest multi-sport facility in the US, to organise a week long test session for 3D technology in December.

All major rig manufacturers and 3D acquisition suppliers will be invited to set up their systems on a variety of sports events for a side by side shoot out.

“This is a big bang theory to test how each manufacturer’s rigs and conversion technologies work,” said Pannaman. “ We will test everything.”

ESPN is also to conduct a major study into depth metadata and depth analysis.

“This is major topic which impacts events downstream. For example we need to think very carefully about how we place closed captions and graphics in stereo. Do we need to develop some automated alarm which will alert us before we go to air whether a graphic is going to occlude the image? These are monumental challenges which are vital to enable us to produce good 3D.”