Cost-effective content remains missing link to 3-D TV success

Much like the early days of HDTV, consumers with 3-D TV sets are wondering when a sufficient amount of content will be available — so they can stop watching Disney’s animated "Up."

Several new retail store polls are showing that 3-D TV set sales are tracking about 30 percent lower than predicted (or that consumer electronics manufacturers would like to see), and one reason is a lack of fresh content to watch. With a limited number of Blu-Ray 3-D DVD titles and few live broadcasts, many consumers are justifiably hesitant to buy. On the other side, content creators are hesitant to develop programming because it’s expensive to produce and broadcast, and cable networks can't get more revenue from advertisers.

If this is a chicken-and-egg scenario, it appears the industry needs a lot more chickens.

Heretofore, CE companies like Panasonic and Sony have underwritten virtually all of the live broadcasts to appear in the United States. Media companies like Discovery Communications and ESPN have been working through these early stages and producing some content themselves, but it’s clearly not enough to stimulate a lackluster 3-D TV market. The clear winners thus far have been theater owners and movie studios, which have seen increased receipts when showing 3-D fare.

“The problem is that there’s no upside to producing 3-D content for TV right now,” said Jean-Claude Krelic, a sales specialist with Miranda Technologies. He gave a presentation on the status of 3-D at a recent Tech Forum, hosted by satellite bandwidth provider Globecomm (Hauppauge, NY). “It’s not that people are not experimenting and trying new things, because they are, but we won't see a steady stream of content until producers know they can get a return on their investment. It’s a real problem right now,” he said.

Indeed, although ESPN has been covering live college football games for its 3-D channel, there’s clearly not enough to fill a full day’s schedule. Discovery Communications will launch its own 3-D channel in January, with financial and logistical support from Sony and IMAX. Discovery, Sony (through its U.S. affiliate Sony Corporation of America) and IMAX each will be equal partners in the joint venture.

Discovery is providing network services, including affiliate sales and technical support functions, 3-D TV rights to Discovery content and cross-promotion across its portfolio of 13 U.S. TV networks. Sony will provide advertising/sponsorship sales support and will seek to license TV rights to current and future 3-D feature films, music-related and game-related content, while providing cross-promotion at retail stores. IMAX also will license TV rights to future 3-D films, promoted through its owned-and-operated movie theaters across the United States, and a suite of image enhancement and 3-D technologies.

The new 3-D network will feature content (shows on natural history, space, exploration, adventure, engineering, science and technology, motion pictures and children's programming) from Discovery, Sony Pictures Entertainment, IMAX and other third-party providers.

To fill the pipeline, Discovery and ESPN have each issued a series of program guidelines to outside content producers and both are experimenting with different technologies to find the right economic model for cost-effective content creation. Panasonic has been doing its part, both in the financing of major sporting events in 3-D, like the recent U.S. Open Tennis tournament in New York, and in the marketing of its 3DA1 3-D camcorder. The new camcorder lists for $21,000 and alleges to enable a wide variety of shooters to create content on small budgets (about 800 have been preordered worldwide thus far). Sony is rumored to be coming out with a similarly small and cost-conscious camcorder next year, which it designed with the help of Discovery engineers.

The questions remain, however: Will it be enough? How long will CE companies continue to foot the bill when set sales are underperforming sales predictions?

It might be time for some new 3-D DVDs.