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Au Revoir, ESPN 3D

BRISTOL, CONN. —ESPN will discontinue its 3D channel at the end of the year, the sports franchise confirmed today. The stereoscopic channel, launched in 2010, is being pulled “due to limited viewer adoption,” a spokeswoman said.

“We are committing our 3D resources to other products and services that will better serve fans and affiliates,” she said.

TVNewsCheckbroke the news Wednesday morning. ESPN then confirmed it for other news outlets. Multichannel News noted that the decision coincides with job cuts of 300 to 400 initiated by ESPN corporate parent Walt Disney Co., including some positions within ESPN 3D.

Sony sponsored the stereoscopic network from inception, and signed on again for another year in the July of 2011. There was no announcement that the electronics giant re-upped again after that sponsorship expired last July. The spokeswoman did not respond when asked if ESPN 3D had been without a sponsor since then.

The 3DTV push began strategically after the December 2009 release of James Cameron’s 3D extravaganza, Avatar. The format was publically launched on TV in select pubs around the United Kingdom in January of 2010, when it also was the star of the Consumer Electronics Show.

Tom Cosgrove, 3Net Studios president and CEO, blamed a paucity of content for the lukewarm adoption of 3DTV, and noted that the sales rate exceeded that of early high-definition TV sets, in an January interview with Variety.

However, early HDTV sets were prohibitively expensive cathode ray tube sets the size of china cabinets. With 3DTV, stereoscopic capability was integrated into flat-panel HD sets at a marginal—and temporary—price premium. 3DTV sets started hitting the U.S. market around May and June of 2010. The price premium virtually disappeared by August. By September, just 655,000 3DTV sets had shipped to dealers. Around 12.5 million have shipped to dealers since 2011, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Actual viewership was never measured by Nielsen. 3DTV sets could be used for 2D programming without the shutter glasses required to process the dual images necessary for seeing the video stereoscopically.

Consumers were dicey on the glasses, and a few were nauseated by dual images. Samsung’s Australia office issued a warning about the health risks of 3DTV in April of 2010, saying that fluorescent lights may cause flicker with the glasses.

“Some viewers may experience an epileptic seizure or stroke when exposed to certain flashing images or lights contained in certain television pictures or video games. If you or any of your family has a history of epilepsy or stroke, please consult with a medical specialist before using the 3D function,” the warning read.

No U.S. broadcaster launched over-the-air 3DTV delivery, though the Advanced Television Systems Committee finalized three proposed transmission standards in February.

3D was mostly the domain of cable networks. ESPN was first up in June 2010, in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup with Sony on board. DirecTV and Panasonic launched three, 3D channels the following month. DirecTV’s primary 3D channel, n3D, was cut back to a part-time schedule last August.

ESPN, one of the driving forces of high-definition TV, went all in on 3D. Following the World Cup, the network produced multiple major sporting events in the format, including Wimbledon, the X Games, The Masters and assorted college football, basketball, NBA, boxing and baseball events.

The network was awarded a Sports Emmy in conjunction with the Cameron|Pace Group for 3D coverage of the 2012 Winter X Games. They were awarded the Outstanding Technical Team Remote for the stereoscopic broadcast from Aspen, Colo. Producers used 34 camera systems in six different event locations, some at altitudes higher than 9,000 feet. Five rig types were used, from handhelds, to robotics.

The network reached 75 million U.S. homes on the major cable providers and was available in Australia.

“Nobody knows more about sports in 3D than ESPN, and we will be ready to provide the service to fans if or when 3D does take off,” the network spokeswoman said.