SBJ/December 5-11, 2011/Media

ESPN ramps up the 3-D for Winter X Games

ESPN will embark on by far its largest 3-D TV production yet for the Winter X Games in January, showing continued bullishness in the emerging but widely debated technology when many others are backing away.

The outlet will devote 34 3-D TV cameras to its winter action sports event, roughly twice the number of cameras it has used for 3-D TV events such as the Masters and last July’s Summer X Games. The effort will be a fully integrated TV production in which the standard 2-D high-definition feed will be extracted from footage originally shot in 3-D.

3-D hasn’t taken off the way HD did before it, but ESPN continues to use it.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Over the past year, ESPN and other networks have sought to end the costly separation of 2-D and 3-D TV productions at major events. After several smaller combined productions earlier this year, the Winter X Games will be ESPN’s largest yet of what it calls a “5-D” effort.

“There are a lot of things that are coming together in our favor,” said Phil Orlins, ESPN coordinating producer for 3-D and the X Games. “The 3-D camera technology continues to get smaller and better, enabling us to have more positions like flycams, overhead cams, robotic cameras and so forth with no compromises, and that’s really important.

“But this is also an event that really lends itself well to 3-D. You have competitors generally going in a predictable path, and this is something where you really don’t understand everything they’re doing, such as how steep these hills are, the undulation of the terrain, without the additional depth that 3-D provides.”

ESPN’s embrace of 3-D TV increasingly flies in the face of flagging consumer interest. Global sales of 3-D TVs reached 6.6 million units during the third quarter, according to retail tracking firm NPD, up 27 percent from the prior quarter. But that same report acknowledged questions about the lack of 3-D content and services, and questions remain among many industry observers about how often the 3-D technology is actually being used.

Among the issues commonly cited as problems are 3-D TV-induced queasiness and headaches, and the lack of a universal standard among set manufacturers for 3-D glasses. The glasses themselves are frequently seen as impediments to the inherently social nature of watching sports.

Meanwhile, 3-D TV will have a featured role next month at ESPN’s first booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. ESPN will conduct an invitation-only screening there of the BCS national championship game in 3-D TV, and will also produce “SportsNation” in 3-D from the show floor, marking the network’s first studio show to be telecast in the enhanced format.

“We’re certainly not oblivious to the perceptions out there right now, the confusion over glasses and costs and so forth,” Orlins said. “But we still believe in the content experience, and it’s our view that in a lot of cases thus far, the content experience has not been done right. When people see 3-D actually done properly, the reaction is vastly different, and one where they immediately say they have to have this in their homes. Sure, we see all the problems and challenges still out there, but we also see all the magic.”

ESPN 3D, its dedicated 3-D TV channel, is available in about 60 million homes through Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable/Bright House and Verizon FiOS.
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