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CBS Sports hesitant to spend for 3-D production

With slowing momentum due to a lack of a real revenue stream, some broadcast networks are shying away from producing 3-D telecasts.

While ESPN continues to announce new 3-D telecasts for its ESPN 3D channel (including the upcoming Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 and the BCS National Championship game on Jan. 10 sponsored by Sony), a representative of CBS Sports at a recent conference said the network wouldn’t do any more 3-D productions unless it has a sponsor to pay for it.

Ken Aagaard, executive vice president of engineering, operations and production for CBS Sports, said, “There really is no way that my boss or our company is going to allow us to get into the technology unless it is paid for.”

These are strong words from someone representing a sports network that has been at the forefront of such technologies as stereo audio and HDTV. CBS Sports did produce this year’s U.S. Open Tennis tournament in 3-D, with sponsorship from Panasonic.

The sentiment from CBS illustrates the fact that producers are acknowledging that there are very few 3-D TV sets in the market, so advertising rates are nonexistent at this point. For their part, consumer electronics manufacturers are also witnessing lukewarm interest among consumers for 3-D TV sets. For both sides, then, producing only a smattering of high-profile events until the penetration gets higher, amid conflicting predictions as to when that will happen, might be a prudent strategy.

The production community continues to struggle with how to produce a simultaneous 3-D/HD event without doubling the cost. A strategy was developed for simultaneous SD/HD telecasts, but 3-D is far more complicated and requires extra crews, training and equipment that can be shared across SD/HD digital productions. At the U.S. Open, CBS did use a few Shadow rigs, developed by PACE, that captured 2-D and 3-D from the same camera positions; however, the production company, NEP Supershooters, still had to man the truck with six extra staff who monitored and adjusted the output of six rigs with Sony HD cameras.

At a recent “3D Media Markets” presentation hosted by Paul Kagan in New York, Aagaard was part of a panel discussing the economics (or lack thereof) of producing 3-D content. He said that building an infrastructure for HD cost CBS millions, yet it saw little beyond bragging rights for being one of the first to broadcast it (a New York Jets game in 1996).

CBS does plan to produce some of its Final Four college basketball tournament next March in 3-D and offer it in specially equipped theaters across the country. At least in this scenario there’s revenue from tickets. The 3-D-in-the-home model has yet to provide such a return, mainly because it’s still too expensive and problematic to send the signal to cable or satellite headends, which then retransmit it into homes with 3-D-capable sets. Broadcasting it over the air is still a nascent pipedream, due to issues stemming from a lack of technical infrastructure to handle the bandwidth-hungry telecasts. Broadcasters like CBS, Fox and NBC only have 6MHz of spectrum to send all of their content, and there’s just no room for 3-D at the moment.

“We’re going to do the best we can to try to stay in the (3-D) space, in a way that doesn't cost us any money,” Aagaard said.

Maybe that’s a pipedream, too.