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There was arguably no bigger advocate for 3-D TV in the home than ESPN. It set up a dedicated 3-D TV channel, ESPN 3D, and signed carriage agreements enabling it to potentially reach more than 75 million homes. It broadcast several of its biggest events, including the World Cup, Masters and BCS college football championship game, in the format. It even developed a blended system in which both 2-D and 3-D feeds could be extracted from the same production.
But in the end it wasn’t nearly enough, and when ESPN announced this month it planned to shut down the channel by the close of 2013, it provided a potential death knell to the format.
Set manufacturers had already begun to shift away from 3-D TV. After several years of aggressively trying to use 3-D as a major selling point to accelerate set replacement cycles, the manufacturers over the last 18 months saw consumer adoption for 3-D TV lagging for numerous reasons. Many didn’t like the glasses that greatly inhibited the social elements of TV viewing, particularly for sports, and in most cases were proprietary to specific manufacturers. Some consumers saw 3-D TV as literally nauseating.
Also problematic for many sports fans were the different camera angles required for 3-D TV broadcasts, angles that provided radically altered views compared with now-industry standard views of sports in 2-D TV.
John Skipper of ESPN says 3-D is “not for an everyday viewing experience.”
Photo by:SHANA WITTENWYLER
“This is still something that can work in the cinema, for maybe some of your big, ‘wow’ major events. But it’s not for an everyday viewing experience,” said John Skipper, ESPN president. “We’re still believers in it, and we could get back into it quickly if needed. But right now, it’s just not the sort of thing where you can have your friends over to watch the game and bring out the chips and dip.”
ESPN, like many other networks and leagues, is exploring the realm of 4K TV, which offers significantly greater picture resolution than current high-definition (see related story). But Skipper acknowledged it’s still very early days for that technology, and it’s likely a “three- to five-year horizon” before 4K is truly mainstream.
Other industry executives are not yet ready to give up on 3-D despite its recent choppy history. Some see a day in the not-too-distant future in which 3-D is incorporated into 4K sets and without glasses. Several 3-D TV prototypes not requiring glasses have appeared over the last two years at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Those prototypes have not been particularly immersive, however, and required a viewer to stay in a particular spot to get the 3-D effect.
“3-D as an in-home TV application right now is essentially dead,” said Rich Zabel, vice president of Eastern region sales for Harris Broadcast, which develops equipment used for television broadcasts. “But looking down the road, the kind of research manufacturers are continuing to do in glasses-less technology, I can definitely foresee a situation where 4K, glasses-less 3-D, and particularly higher frame rates come together in one killer product that gets 3-D back into the home. That’s probably several years away still. But there are a lot of people working on this from a lot of different angles.”
Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
Sports networks are in the early stages of testing 4K technology, the next generation of high-definition video touting picture resolution four times greater than HD televisions at home.
Both ESPN and NBC used 4K systems for their respective coverage of the NBA and Stanley Cup finals, and Showtime has used it for boxing.
For basketball, ESPN used the technology as an in-game broadcast tool, and it is enthused about the initial results, said Tim Corrigan, the network’s senior coordinating producer.
ESPN’s test came at the same time the network announced it was dropping its 3-D channel because of consumers’ limited interest.
“There is still some R&D on our end to determine where the most valuable angles can be to best utilize the technology,” Corrigan said. “One of the great things about it is the ability to zoom in and maintain clarity.”
The question remains whether ESPN will eventually introduce a 4K channel. “I would never comment on that yet because I think we’re still learning the value of what it could mean to our broadcasts [and] how we would integrate it into our shows,” Corrigan said.
The technology, named for 4K’s 4 million pixels of horizontal resolution, is going through the same growing pains that HD experienced when it first hit the market 15 years ago. To this point, 4K televisions are too expensive for most consumers, and it will take several years before broadcast standards are developed for the system, said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant.
Experts say 80-inch screens are needed to fully grasp the improved picture, and Sony’s 84-inch 4K television, for example, costs $25,000. Its 65-inch version goes for $7,000.
But 4K has a distinct advantage over 3-D because viewers do not have to wear special glasses and in general there are no headaches or motion sickness tied to the technology, Berke said. He recently experienced 4K technology at a cable television trade show.
“This could be the future of live television and the next generation of video screens in arenas and stadiums,” he said.
For the NBA Finals, ESPN set up two stand-alone cameras during Games 3, 4 and 5 at AT&T Center, opposite 38 regular HD cameras stationed on the other side of the court. The unmanned 4K cameras each focused on one half of the court and recorded the game from a reverse-angle perspective, said Steve Hellmuth, NBA Entertainment’s executive vice president of operations and technology. Both units were digital cinema cameras with some limitations, because manufacturers have not made 4K cameras customized for sports with the longer lenses network directors expect for quality production, Hellmuth said.
What 4K brought to the Finals was the ability to produce a much crisper image on close-ups. Regular HD pictures can lose focus as the camera zooms in on sports action.
“We can zoom in right now on basically any camera we have, but as you get in closer, the picture loses clarity, and that’s not what any of us want,” Corrigan said.
Using a cutting-edge replay device called Dreamcatcher as part of the 4K test, the network could zoom in from the reverse angle and essentially “cut out” the picture it wanted to use and send it as an HD replay to the production truck, Hellmuth said.
The 4K camera views were used twice on air during ABC’s broadcasts in San Antonio: once for a replay and a second time as a “teaching tool” by analyst Jeff Van Gundy in a game package, Corrigan said.
“Ultimately, it’s another tool to use in the documentation of events to make sure we get things right,” he said. “For a championship-level event, having the best information for the viewer, the officials and everyone else involved in making the calls … that’s where it can be valuable.”
EA Sports will be a fixture in those console launches, planning to release four of its titles for the new platforms: “Madden NFL 25,” “FIFA 14,” “NBA Live 14,” and “UFC.” For “NBA Live 14,” it will mark a return to store shelves after a tumultuous four-year absence for the franchise. Andrew Wilson, head of EA Sports since August 2011, spoke with staff writer Eric Fisher this month at E3 in Los Angeles on the transition and the state of industry.
Wilson on “NBA Live 14”: We’ve got an understanding of what it’s going to take to finish the game.
Photo by:GORT PRODUCTIONS
WILSON: As game makers and sports fans, our dream for a long time has been to create something that when you walk into a room and you look over someone’s shoulder, you can’t discern whether it’s real or virtual. And I believe that with all the extra processing power, the extra RAM, the extra animation we can do, I think we’re right on that horizon where you can’t discern that difference between real and virtual. And that’s a profound opportunity.
■ What are your plans going forward with the legacy platforms, particularly with Microsoft intending to also support Xbox 360 for some time going forward?
WILSON: It’s a challenge a lot of industries face. You look at the car industry, and I’m a big car guy. There are some people who will always buy the last generation of a car, because there’s a belief that’s important. And all the faults go away. And there are also people who always have to have the newest technology, and all that’s available. And what car manufacturers have ultimately realized is that those are two separate, healthy markets. I believe we’re doing the same sort of thing here. Our job is to make sure on whatever platform they choose to play on, we give them the best game they’ve ever played.
■ One of the big appearances on the floor, of course, was “NBA Live 14.” The game has made it to the show floor in prior years, and then ultimately failed to reach retail. The chatter, body language and energy around the title does seem changed this time, though. How do you see this year as different?
WILSON: I’m going to be very conscious of what I say here, because we have been in this position before. But we’re further along than we were last year, and on a new platform. I think we’ve got an understanding of what it’s going to take to finish the game that we didn’t have before. There’s a fire in the belly of this creative team now that I haven’t seen in a while. And you’re beginning to see the fruits of their labors.
WILSON: Absolutely. We’ve watched this movie before. We went down this road with “FIFA,” and we’ve got to win gamers back and earn their
EA’s “Madden” and “FIFA” are ready for new gaming platforms.
■ Shifting gears to “UFC,” it’s very interesting to see Dana White up on stage with you again given your prior history. [White in ’09 said he was “at war” with EA]. What has your relationship with Dana been like?
WILSON: I love working with Dana and working with the UFC. I love working with all our partners, and they’re all really great. But Dana has a passion for his sport that might be unparalleled in the sports industry. And we have a shared passion for what we’re trying to do with this game. You see these presentations on stage, and we of course go through various rehearsals and run-throughs so it runs clean. But Dana just says he’s going to show up and speak from the heart. No script. No teleprompter. And we said, “OK,” and he turns up at that moment and speaks from the heart with that incredible passion. And to me, it’s the best testament of the relationship between UFC and EA Sports.
■ “FIFA” has been at some rather lofty sales levels in recent years as the world’s biggest-selling sports game. Where do you see further sales elevation, particularly through the new platforms?
WILSON: The moment we start focusing just on sales numbers, we’re in trouble. What happened with “FIFA” is that we built a great game with a lot of innovation and everything built from there. But there’s a lot of opportunity in North America still as soccer grows in this country. Latin America, there’s a lot of growth there ahead, particularly with the World Cup in Brazil next year. Asia is also seeing tremendous growth.
■ What do you see as the future for EA with regard to its license with the NFL and NFL Players Association for “Madden NFL”? [The current deal expires next year].
WILSON: I think we have a tremendous relationship with the league and the P.A. I think they are overjoyed with what we’ve been able to do over the last few years with “Madden,” not just in the gaming industry but the sports industry in general. I foresee us walking together for many, many, many years to come.
Gerst is new to the sports industry, having spent the last eight years at the Times as executive director of platform technologies. There, he helped that outlet become a thought leader in developing new forms of digital content presentation, including the creation of its verified commenter program and aggressive embrace of user-generated content to create new, interactive forms of storytelling such as its notable “The Lives They Lived” feature. He spoke last week with staff writer Eric Fisher.
■ What attracted you to the position, and at this time?
GERST: What attracted me most is that this is a transformative time for Fox Sports with the launch of the new network, the opportunity to come into a new role and help lead the technology organization here, and help Fox become more of a technology company.
“The Lives They Lived” was among Gerst’s projects for The New York Times.
GERST: I spent a lot of time at The New York Times, which had this image as a 160-year-old media company, as the Grey Lady, trying to build ourselves as more of a technology company. So we put together an open [application programming interface] program, a developer outreach program, speaker events, hack days, that sort of thing, just to show the developer community and the technology community the kinds of things we were doing at the Times. It was good [developer] recruiting, but it was also good for developer retention. That’s the sort of thing that I’m bringing from the Times that I expect to instill here at Fox Sports.
■ What do you think Fox Sports, and digital sports in general, can learn from news and your news background?
GERST: A lot of the things we’ve done at the Times were based around teams of developers that were working in the newsroom, sitting side by side with editors, producers and reporters who were available to work on stories as they were happening. That’s a lot of what you saw in the interactive stories that came from the Times, that interactivity came from the team [of developers] in the newsroom. That kind of cross-platform approach would be amazing and is something I’ll be talking to people about here.
David Rudolph envisions a day in the not-too-distant future when every high school sporting event — all 2.1 million of them — will be streamed somewhere.
They’ll go to websites, mobile devices and, Rudolph eventually believes, a digital network that’s the home for strictly high school sports.
The digital high school network will broadcast games
The task of aggregating enough high school viewers to make a network commercially viable remains the question. It’s the moms and dads and grandparents of high school athletes who will make up the audience, and media experts remain skeptical that there are enough of them to generate the revenue needed to make a network go.
But for now, Rudolph said, the network is a digital play that will be accessible through broadband, wireless or any TV-connected device, and he projects that he can make the network thrive on 1 million consumer subscribers, or 20,000 a state, at $6 a sub. That’s a lot of moms and dads being asked to pay $72 a year for a subscription.
“I think this can be the Netflix of high school sports,” said Rudolph, the CEO of PlayOn! Sports and a former Turner executive.
An announcement this week at the NFHS annual meeting in Denver will make the new network official. Rudolph and NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner will present the news to the 51 state high school associations that make up the organization, which is loosely like the NCAA of high school sports. The NFHS Network, as it will be called, has a planned launch in August.
Rudolph describes the high school market as uncluttered and ripe for such an opportunity. But Lee Berke, a New York-based media consultant who has worked on regional networks for college and pro sports, sees the high school space as completely cluttered. Fox regional networks, ESPN, Time Warner Cable, Comcast and local TV stations all broadcast high school events in some form, he said.
“The interesting thing is that there’s been a medium level of interest and activity around high school sports for over a decade,” Berke said. “They all get to a certain level and that’s as far as it goes. There have been a number of high school aggregators that have come and gone because it’s such a fragmented market. To achieve mass to make something like this work, you’ve got to have hundreds upon hundreds of relationships with schools and states, and the audience has to literally go from community to community.”
The NFHS relationship is where Rudolph believes he has a differentiator.
The NFHS and the state associations will own a combined 52.5 percent of the NFHS Network, while PlayOn! Sports will own 47.5 percent. Each of the 51 state associations (including one for the District of Columbia) will own a share at the network’s launch.
“We believe in the appetite for this kind of product,” Gardner said. “A lot of states do things TV-wise on a local level, but nothing like this has ever been attempted before on a national level. This brings the potential for some uniformity.”
PlayOn! Sports, with a staff of 65 employees and more than 2,000 freelancers, has been working for most of the last five years to create a digital home for the broadcast of high school sporting events at playonsports.com. PlayOn! since 2008 has produced and streamed thousands of high school sporting events.
The NFHS Network is the next phase. The meat of its live game programming will come from the thousands of postseason high school events across a variety of sports that are rarely broadcast to any platform. There are roughly 4,000 postseason events annually per state that usually are not seen anywhere on TV or online.
Rudolph is working feverishly to acquire the rights to all postseason games not already under contract. Those rights cost anywhere from $30,000 to $150,000 a year per state, depending on the state and number of games, and the network is seeking a five-year commitment from each state.
Most high school associations have media deals to broadcast the championship games in football, basketball and some Olympic sports, but very few of the games leading up to the finals are broadcast anywhere. That’s where Rudolph sees a sweet spot for the network.
PlayOn! has built a production infrastructure capable of broadcasting 80 events at the same time, all in high definition. The company owns 30 HD production trucks or vans, and another 50 video “fly packs” — rental production units — that enable students, high school staff or parents to broadcast games themselves.
Subscribers to the NFHS Network would have the ability to pick whichever game they want to watch, either live or from an archive. Analysis and highlights also would be part of the content offerings.
Beginning at its launch in August, playonsports.com will be rebranded to NFHSnetwork.com. The NFHS Network will be a completely new LLC.
“Like Netflix, it’s about being able to watch whatever you want, whenever you want,” Rudolph said. “High school sports all together generate three times the attendance of pro and college sports combined. It’s a huge marketplace, but it’s just really spread out. We’ve put in a ton of effort to achieve scale so that this will be attractive to consumers and advertisers.”
Photo by:PLAYON! SPORTS
He’s hopeful, as an NFHS partner, that the network achieves the scale that’s been so elusive over the years, but he understands the challenge. He’s been down this road trying to aggregate high school sponsorship rights.
“It’s a very ambitious attempt,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a great signal from the NFHS that they’re taking this step to provide something so unique for its membership. Having said that, the world of media rights is complex. We’re just waiting to see how it unrolls and how it’s distributed. I’m in this world, so the more eyeballs on high school, the better.”
Rudolph has thought about a high school network for years, going back to his time at Turner Broadcasting. The Georgia Tech grad oversaw Turner South and eventually led strategic planning and new product development at Turner as a senior vice president before buying PlayOn!, a Turner property, away from the company in 2008 and making high school sports its full-time focus.
It was just last year, however, that he began serious talks with the NFHS. In a relatively short time — from last August until now — those talks have turned into a serious business plan. Writing a business plan for a network is nothing new to Rudolph, who at 26 years old wrote the business plan for Turner South and launched the regional network in 1999.
His plan for the NFHS Network projects top-line revenue of $100 million a year within five years, with 70 percent coming from consumer subscriptions and 30 percent from advertising and sponsorships.
The $70 million in annual subscription revenue is based on the targeted 1 million consumers (20,000 per state) paying $6 a month. Rudolph emphasizes that the business plan doesn’t include any revenue from traditional TV distribution fees.
“The subscription model is the most viable,” Berke said. “To get enough mass, you’ve got to have thousands and thousands of communities that might subscribe. That’s really stringing it together. That’s a lot of parents and grandparents signing on. For advertisers, that’s the only way you’ll achieve the mass to make it worthwhile. A linear TV channel, now that’s a really tough row to hoe. The distributors are already offering up high school sports and some of them [Time Warner and Comcast, as two examples] are doing it themselves. And then you’ve got ESPN cherry-picking the best events.”
The network will be based in PlayOn! Sports’ Atlanta offices and a five-person board of directors will be charged with its oversight. Three board positions will come from the state high school associations, and two will come from PlayOn! Sports.
Because the state high school associations have an ownership stake in the network, they theoretically will be motivated to move as many championship events as possible to the NFHS Network.
The sponsorship and advertising roles are still being worked out. HTM has the relationship with the NFHS, while Melt, an Atlanta-based event and marketing firm, is the agency of record for PlayOn! Sports.
“It’s a national inventory model, but it’s also something that can be customized down to a regional, state or local level,” said Vince Thompson, Melt’s CEO. He identified insurance, auto, wireless and health care as just a few of several categories that will be mined.
PlayOn! has sold title sponsorships to its game broadcasts in the past, but HTM also sells sponsorships to the championship events in most states.
Navigating those relationships so that there’s no conflict will be one of the challenges in the coming months.
NASCAR is making it possible for fans to comment on articles online.
The sport hired the software company Livefyre to provide a commenting service on NASCAR.com that allows fans to post comments instantaneously. Fans also can bring friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter to the site by tagging them in their comments.
When NASCAR launched its new website in January, it included a comment function developed by its digital developers, Sapient Nitro and Omnigon. But the sanctioning body pulled the service down because it was disappointed in its functionality, said Tim Clark, NASCAR senior director of optimization.
NASCAR was searching for a new partner when several members of its digital team learned about Livefyre at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Marc Jenkins, NASCAR’s vice president of digital, and Livefyre CEO Jordan Kretchmer later worked out an agreement.
Livefyre also powers real-time commenting sections on SI.com, FoxSports.com and The Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsD site. Its commenting software became available on NASCAR.com June 5. Clark expects it to boost traffic and extend the time visitors spend on the website.
“There should be a degree of community on site,” Clark said. “Giving fans a chance to continue conversations and invite other fans into the conversation will deepen the experience and improve what fans are getting out of the site.”