Canal Plus drops 3-D

The decision by French pay TV operator Canal Plus to axe its 3-D channel after 18 months of operation is a significant setback for the technology in Europe, following low consumer take up. The channel attracted just 20,000 subscribers despite considerable marketing from Canal Plus since its launch in June 2010, leading the company to decide the technology was not ready. Canal Plus managing director René Saal said that for now development and marketing would be refocused back on 3-D, although he did not rule out restarting its 3-D channel in a few years’ time.

The move reflects growing loss of momentum for 3-D in Europe, caused by a combination of lukewarm consumer response and lack of available content. The first signs of this were apparent early in 2011 if not before, with the publication by analyst group Ovum of a report called The State of 3-D (Strategic Focus) identifying a lack of enthusiasm among broadcasters as 53 percent of survey respondents regarded it as low priority. As a result, 3-D content was being produced at a much lower rate than had been hoped or expected a year or two earlier. The report noted that a number of European operators had launched 3-D channels, including BSkyB as well as CanalPlus, but had been hampered by the high cost of 3-D production, particularly for live content. This in turn had deterred some operators from coming in with dedicated 3-D channels at all, but meant more generally that the appeal of 3-D was limited by the poor choice of content, mostly confined to a scattering of sports events and a few movies.

Even in the UK, which has been leading Europe’s push for 3-D, enthusiasm tapered off towards the end of 2011 following another report by Informa Telecoms & Media, which indicated that 3-D will still have failed to break out of its niche and become part of mainstream viewing by 2016. The report acknowledged that 3-D had got off to a flying start in the UK following a strong push from the country’s leading pay TV operator, satellite provider BSkyB, which has been providing its 3-D content free to its 3.7 million premium HD customers, almost 40 percent of its 10 million customer base. BSkyB has been pushing 3-D as the next big thing, and rival Virgin Media, the UK’s dominant cable TV operator with 4 million subscribers, has also been plugging 3-D hard, offering 3-D movies to customers with a capable TV set. Furthermore, 3-D has also enjoyed strong support from the BBC, which kicked off by broadcasting the men's and women's finals of the 2011 Wimbledon tennis championships in the format.

But, reality intruded on the hype increasingly in the second half of 2011, as Internet connectivity overtook 3-D in the league of development and marketing priorities. Virgin Media realized it was gaining far more customers as a result of its Tivo box connecting TVs to web content than from 3-D, with the Informa survey predicting that, while, by 2016, one-third of UK households, or about 8 million, will have 3-D TV sets, only 42 percent of these will consume 3-D content regularly.

Part of the reason for the slower-than-expected take up of 3-D is realization that the technology has some way to go to make 3-D viewing compelling for a broad range of content. Goggle-less viewing will be essential for 3-D to become mainstream, and it has still to be proven that TV sets can provide this successfully across a wide field of view. Symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and other symptoms caused quite commonly by 3-D viewing also need to be tackled by reducing the visual processing load on the brain imposed by current technology.

So far, the decline in 3-D interest in Europe appears not to have been reflected elsewhere, with major U.S. networks such as ESPN, Discovery, and DirecTV maintaining their efforts. ESPN, for example, hopes that 3-D will recoup some of the $15.2 billion it spent on rights over the next eight years to the National Football league, planning to shoot these in full 1080p HD resolution in 3-D after 2014.

Meanwhile, Consumer Electronics (CE) vendors are desperately trying to maintain 3-D momentum by investing in 3-D content production if the broadcasters will not do it. The 2012 London Olympics will provide a major test of this strategy, with several TV makers including Panasonic sponsoring 3-D TV production at the games.

In reality, though, CE makers, as well as pay TV operators and broadcasters, are having to lengthen their sights and view 3-D as more of a slow burner that will generate revenues and interest, but over a longer term than had been anticipated, with more work needed. It is likely that further improvements in HD, perhaps Ultra HD, will gain greater traction first.