Will sports coverage drive 3-D?

Now I'm not a great viewer of sports on television, as I believe that sports are for participation, not for watching others participate. In my younger days, I spent three days a week at competitive sports. So to catch up on this genre of television, I recently attended a Royal Television Society colloquium on sports broadcasting to see what new developments there are in the business.

The sessions reinforced how sports television is at the heart of innovation in television production. Of course, sports programming is well funded, so it is not under the same budgetary pressures as some other genres. Large numbers of viewers pay for subscription channels to watch sports, and the advertising slots in premier events command high prices.

Broadcasters are doing all they can to attract viewers. 3-D visualization for action replay is one area of active development. Point-of-view cameras are being modified to provide HD pictures — no mean feat in a camera around an inch-cube.

What surprised me most are the efforts being put into audio production. Audio is often forgotten as the poor relation to video, but as a sound supervisor once said to me, try watching TV with the sound muted. Surround sound for sports has given a fresh impetus to sound design, and a presentation on new production techniques by BSkyB in the UK showed just how much innovative audio production can add to the excitement of viewing sports.

Television is not just technology. The audience, which was predominately engineers, heard about the business side, specifically archives and sponsorship. I have a special interest in digital asset management (DAM). Although it has been enthusiastically adopted for brand management by the marketing industry, broadcasters have been slower to see the value. Visit the media village at a major sports event, and you can find crates of videotape used to insert archive material into the live coverage. Now, I find that to be very inefficient, even archaic, with the facilities now available to manage video content as files.

One major sports syndicator gave a presentation on the advantages of digital asset management for sports broadcasting. Sports coverage is not just of interest to broadcasters. The archive can be mined and sold to sports federations, clubs, sponsors and advertisers. This can be carried out by librarians and archivists retrieving tapes, who can then make dubs for clients. How much better is it to use DAM? Not only can the cost be lower, but also it is much easier for clients to browse for material, thus increasing sales opportunities.

One question raised during the day was: “What's going to be the next big leap in the viewing experience?” There were mixed views on the need for 1080p at 50/60Hz. The move to 3-D was seen as important as the move from monochrome to color. Sure, the high frame rate progressive formats can be described as an incremental technology, but they do finally free us from the 1920s fudge of interlace. The 3GHz infrastructure that is essential for 50/60 frame progressive is equally applicable for stereoscopic 3-D and provides a stepping stone to higher bit rates.

Some indication of the interest in 3-D can be seen from the CES held recently in Las Vegas. One of the sessions was titled “How will we see 3-D TV?” Just like the launch of HD, the interest comes from areas where viewers will pay to view sports and movies, as well as gaming. For those who like to view sports from the sofa, television coverage is only getting better, and future technologies promise an even more exciting experience at home.

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