Broadcasters at disadvantage with new tech

The Consumer Electronics Assn. predicts 4.3 million 3D TVs will be sold in 2010. ESPN3D begins airing in June. Discovery, Sony and Imax have teamed to launch a 24/7 3D channel. And live 3D could soon be available on DirecTV.Postley adds that broadcasters are “looking for deals like DirecTV’s, where the Sonys or Panasonics of the world give them money. Or at least gear.”

Despite the anticipation, the Big Four broadcast networks have been quiet on the subject, short of using one or another variation of anaglyph, the much-ridiculed method for showing 3D with two-color — usually paper — glasses.

The nets tubthump 3D special events, but those are usually initiated by a program producer or advertiser, not the network. DreamWorks Animation wanted to make a splash with a 3D commercial for “Monsters vs. Aliens” during the 2009 Super Bowl, and the net piggybacked with a 3D episode of “Chuck.” The 3D Michael Jackson clip on the recent Grammy telecast used 3D footage shot for Jackson’s planned concerts, not for TV. On both occasions, audience reaction to the anaglyph presentation was lukewarm at best.

Industry leaders generally acknowledge that over-the-air broadcasting will not be the driver of 3D to the home. Publicly, broadcasters have said little on the subject, perhaps because they’re feeling burned by the transition to HD, which cost them millions in upgrades without delivering additional revenue.

“They’re kind of looking at 3D and saying if they follow the same path, they’re going to have the same result,” says Howard Postley, chief operating officer of 3ality Digital. “There’s not a lot of business reason for them to trail-blaze here.”

Cable and satellite companies have the luxury of adding dedicated 3D channels, which ESPN and Discovery plan to do but broadcasters can’t do easily. Chris Cookson, president of Sony Pictures Technologies, explains: “The problem for over-the-air broadcasting is delivery, as set by FCC (specifications.) Broadcasters have a defined transmission standard (that is) difficult to change.”

It doesn’t seem that bandwidth should be a big issue. According to Postley, a full digital TV channel, 19.37 megabits, has plenty of bandwidth for 3D at the current broadcast HDTV standard, 720p; most over-the-air programs use less than half that bandwidth. But over-air broadcast transmission relies on less-efficient technology than some of the more recently launched codecs, and set manufacturers are working to try to keep up.

Still, the problem is as much due to the preponderance of technologies as it is the size of the pipe into which those technologies must flow.

“Even if you can squeeze (3D) into the (available) 19 megabit channel, a lot of broadcasters are already using excess capacity for additional channels as well as mobile,” says one broadcaster. “So there is really no excess capacity available for 3D, because there are already established businesses that are using those bits.”

Moreover, some insiders are quietly concerned that at least 15% of audiences may have trouble viewing 3D in the home without getting headaches or nausea. Researchers are examining factors from eye fatigue and vision to viewing distance and viewing position.

The ColorCode anaglyph system used by NBC last year has the advantage of delivering a tolerable picture without glasses; almost everyone in the 3D business agrees that the sooner anaglyph is retired, the better.

George Joblove, exec VP of advanced technology for Sony Pictures Entertainment, says, “Anaglyph can’t transmit a proper color image and also doesn’t provide proper separation between the eyes. The concern is that for those who have seen high-quality 3D, anaglyph will disappoint. But those whose haven’t will think that is (the new 3D).”

Even so, says 3ality’s Postley, the nets are quietly exploring a 3D future, and CBS has looked into doing some kind of 3D telecast around college basketball’s Final Four.

“The mainstream networks are looking for ways to, at the very least, not lose their shirts on this,” says Postley, “(And) maybe make a little money.”

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