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Despite positive research results, ESPN’s future 3-D broadcasting plans remain in question

The production and broadcasting of live 3-D content at ESPN remains on shaky ground. Despite a new internal survey showing that ESPN’s fans prefer its 3-D programming over 2-D HD fare, the network has still not decided how or if to proceed beyond the 94 live events, which it will carry through mid-2011, it has committed to produce in 3-D.

Regardless, the network said it would continue to do research into new production techniques and viewer/advertiser metrics to develop a viable business model. Operating at the cutting edge of technology has always been important to ESPN’s image (and attraction) among viewers.

“We committed to a full year of trial of ESPN 3D and we’re preparing for a second year, but whether this is something we repeat or continue or cut is something that at this point we have very little indication on one way or another,” Jonathan Pannaman, ESPN’s senior director of technology, recently told a sports conference in Europe. “We’re still not sure what makes sense for 3-D TV, and we don’t yet see a proven ROI … At the same time, the buzz is huge and we are hopeful of a huge push by the consumer electronics association ahead of Christmas to market 3-D TV sets and services, and we’re seeing more stereo 3-D movies and 3-D Blu-ray discs come to market.

“Regardless of whether we continue as an event-based network or go to a 24/7 network switch to VOD, we definitely have to make production efficiencies to make it work. We’ve also got to get more eyeballs looking at 3-D to get some idea of acceptance in the marketplace,” Pannaman said.

Pannaman leads a 3-D task force at ESPN that is seeking ways “to do ubiquitous production of 3-D with an absolute minimum of additional cost” over standard 2-D production.

“That’s a tall order,” he said. “The current approach is based on the film model, but it’s our focus to reduce and change that. We have to bring in more automated rig correction, even to the point where there is a single workstation that can manage many tasks. Currently, we are fielding a convergence operator for each camera position. That economy can’t be allowed to continue.”

Next month, at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, a theme park at the Orlando, FL, Disney World, will stage a test of 3-D technology from various manufacturers. All major rig manufacturers and 3-D acquisition suppliers will be invited to set up their systems on a variety of sports events for a side-by-side shoot out. Pannaman said ESPN “will test everything” at the event.

The sports network is also studying depth metadata and analysis. “This is a major topic, which impacts events downstream,” Pannaman said. “For example, we need to think very carefully about how we place closed-captions and graphics in stereo. Do we need to develop some automated alarm that will alert us before we go to air whether a graphic is going to include an image? These are monumental challenges, which are vital to enable us to produce good 3-D.”

In another study, ESPN studied viewer reactions to its 3-D sports broadcasts and concluded that fans are comfortable with the medium and enjoy it more than standard HD sports programming.

Compiling the results from more than 1000 testing sessions and 2700 lab hours, ESPN said the study focused on the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Duane Varan, professor of new media at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, and executive director and chief research officer of the Disney Media & Advertising Lab in Austin, TX, conducted the research. The research employed an experimental design approach including the use of perception analyzers, eye gaze and electrodermal activity.

The study focused on multiple topics including overall viewing enjoyment, fatigue and novelty effects, technology differences, production issues and advertising impact. In all, more than 700 measures were processed during the testing. ESPN’s Ad Lab used five different 3-D manufacturers in its testing.

“The results from this comprehensive research project support what we have said time and time again: Fans have a higher level of enjoyment when viewing 3-D. Plus, for advertisers, this study provides good news on the level of fan engagement when viewing 3-D ads,” said Artie Bulgrin, senior vice president of ESPN Research + Analytics.