It may be the biggest technology gamble in recent memory, but two of the leading names in cable have joined the ranks of companies staking their futures on 3-D television.
Cable giants ESPN and Discovery Communications Inc. will unveil 3-D-based channels as early as next summer, the two companies announced separately Tuesday. In ESPN's case, the sports broadcaster will launch its 3-D network on June 11 with the broadcast of the first match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. ESPN 3-D is expected to broadcast at least 85 live sporting events in its first year.
For both companies, the move is a huge risk. But as the world's biggest consumer electronics show kicks off in Las Vegas Wednesday it's becoming clear that TV manufacturers, content producers and myriad other companies are making the same bet.
Indeed, aside from mobile computing and smart phones, 3-D television is expected to generate much of the buzz from this year's show. The timing is also crucial for traditional TV content producers, as more and more consumers opt to get their entertainment directly from the Web.
"This will be a meaningful step to drive adoption of 3-D television sets and afford opportunities for our affiliates to create value through new product offerings, and our advertisers, who want fresh sponsorship opportunities," Sean Bratches, ESPN's executive vice-president of sales and marketing, said in a statement.
Discovery is partnering with Sony and Imax to launch a 3-D channel in 2011. But unlike ESPN's offering, which will go dark when not showing the 85 games, Discovery says its product will be the first 24-hour, three-dimensional channel.
"By partnering with Sony and Imax on 3-D, Discovery will lead the way in revolutionizing the next-generation home viewing experience in the U.S. and around the world," Discovery Communications presidentand chief executive officer David Zaslav said.
"Today's announcement is the next step in fulfilling Discovery's mission of providing groundbreaking content for our affiliate partners and enlightening viewers with the most immersive and realistic viewing experience available anywhere."
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Many analysts, however, aren't convinced that consumers will be quick to make the leap to 3-D television, which manufacturers are framing as an evolution similar to the rise of high-definition TV over the past decade.
"We think it's not going to be a 2010 story," Deloitte Canada analyst Duncan Stewart said of 3-D TV. "It's too expensive, there are too many [competing] standards."
Today, 3-D is a hit in cinemas around the world, thanks to Avatar , the blockbuster movie that may become the highest-grossing film of all time. But recreating the 3-D theatre experience at home is more complicated. There is still a shortage of 3-D-ready sets on the market. It is also unclear just how much consumers will have to do to enjoy 3-D programming at home - which could entail buying a new set, paying higher cable bills and using special viewing glasses.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to adoption of 3-D TV is the lack of consistent technological standards, Mr. Stewart said. As in the early days of video and DVD, there isn't yet a format embraced industry-wide.
"Various [3-D TV]standards don't talk to one another …," he said. "As we know very well, consumer adoption doesn't take off until there's a clear winner."