ESPN presses on in 3D

Net undaunted by format's struggles elsewhere

These haven’t been the best of days for 3D TV.

On a conference call with analysts earlier this month, Discovery Communications prexy-CEO David Zaslav said that 3D TV growth has been slower than expected. His statement came only days after AT&T’s U-Verse TV service dropped ESPN 3D from its channel lineup, citing low subscriber numbers and high costs.

A few days later, television set-makers Panasonic, Samsung and Sony announced they are working to develop a single technological standard for 3D glasses in hopes that specs that work with a greater number of sets will remove an impediment to consumers taking the 3D plunge.

Clearly, a critical mass has not yet been reached.

“The consumer ramp-up is what really matters in getting real numbers of people watching, and obviously that has not moved,” concedes ESPN’s Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for ESPN 3D. “We’d love it to move at an incredibly rapid pace, because that would (get) the most viewers for us.”

Despite the setback at AT&T, ESPN is pressing ahead with its 3D network, focusing on improving coverage and bringing down costs. (The channel continues to be carried by Comcast and DirecTV.)

One key step forward: ESPN’s 3D and 2D production now come off the same production trucks and cameras, a cost-effective solution some at ESPN have nicknamed “5D” (for 2D plus 3D).

“When we were doing the NBA Finals, there were two very large sets of trucks there, the HD fleet and the 3D trucks,” says Jed Drake, senior veep and exec producer for ESPN 3D. “That’s a very expensive proposition.”

But with “5D” production, says Drake, “We’re going to be able to produce more 3D because it’s less expensive than it used to be. Ultimately there has to be more content up in 3D. We’ve got a 24-hour network. It wants new original content.”

The dual approach was in place for the net’s X Games coverage in Los Angeles, and will be used for the Little League World Series coverage starting Aug. 18.

Combined 2D/3D telecasts were a big part of James Cameron’s pitch to broadcasters in April at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. At the same event, Cameron announced his new camera gear company, the Cameron Pace Group, which is ESPN’s exclusive 3D camera rig provider.

Drake says the combo of 2D/3D broadcasting will require “potentially some modest compromises” in the 2D telecast, such as slowing the pace of cutting. Nonetheless, he feels no one watching a 2D gamecast that is actually one eye of a 3D feed would be able to tell the telecast started in 3D.

While viewers haven’t yet been flocking to the format, 3D sportscasts have been growing more polished and sophisticated. Robotic cameras have made it possible to gain more camera positions without gulping up more seats — a big issue at any major sporting event. Cameron Pace Group continues making smaller, lighter, more flexible rigs to meet ESPN’s needs.

Doug Holmes, lead director for ESPN 3D, says that in the first days of 3D, equipment was an issue. Wide-angle and handheld shots were compromised, as were the kind of telescopic shots available in a regular HD show. “But as we progressed,” he says, “we realized it’s pretty easy to work around some of this stuff.”

Some innovations created for 3D have even made it over to the 2D side. For example, 3D cameras need to be closer to the action than 2D cameras, so the high 50-yard-line shots that are a staple of football coverage are problematic. To get closer, ESPN put a 3D camera on a 22-foot mast on a small vehicle that goes up and down the sideline.

“Once everyone saw it, they’re like, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this for years?’?” says Holmes. “Monday Night Football” is adopting it as a reverse-angle shot, even without 3D.

Baseball is still something of a new frontier for 3D coverage, but ESPN will be experimenting at the Little League World Series.

“We don’t look at it like every single camera has to be a 3D camera to create an exceptional 3D experience,” says Orlins. Some telephoto lenses with a lot of magnification don’t work well in 3D, he adds, but sometimes those shots are essential. “If a kid makes an error in right field and is out there crying at a Little League game, seeing his face is a big part of that story.”

But Holmes will be getting shots that are especially impactful in 3D, such as the “mid-home” shot coming from a robotic camera mounted on the backstop above and behind the catcher. “In 3D, especially in a Little League environment, it’s going to be incredible.”

According to Orlins, some play-by-play announcers, once having seen their sports in 3D, have said they don’t want to go back to watching 2D coverage.

Plus, viewer feedback on Twitter has been overwhelmingly positive. “And a significant amount of it is extravagant,” he says. “People feel like it’s a game-changer. You feel great about the response, but we’d sure love to have more scale in terms of the number of households that are ready to see it.”