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ESPN plans live 3-D sports channel

Sports network ESPN plans to launch a 3-D TV network this summer called ESPN 3D, which will carry a minimum of 85 live sporting events during its first year. The network will employ separate production trucks, technical crews and on-air commentators for its 3-D and 2-D productions. The telecasts will include stereoscopic graphics and seven 3-D cameras to capture game action.

Many details remain fuzzy, but ESPN said it has developed its own techniques and workflows for live game applications. To stimulate interest and prompt consumers to buy the required 3-D-capable HDTV sets, ESPN will host a series of viewing parties across the country in specially equipped theaters and other venues. The network will also have to convince cable, satellite TV providers and telcos to deploy the necessary set-top boxes.

ESPN said the first 3-D broadcast would coincide with the start of 2010 FIFA World Cup June 11, featuring South Africa vs. Mexico. Other events to be produced in 3-D include up to 25 2010 FIFA World Cup matches, Summer X Games and college basketball and football, which will include the BCS National Championship game in Glendale, AZ, Jan. 10, 2011. All of these events will also be televised in SD and HD on ESPN and ESPN HD, respectively.

George Bodenheimer, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of ESPN and ABC Sports, said 3-D would position ESPN “at the forefront of the next big advance for TV viewing.”

Like HDTV before it, ESPN hopes the new 3-D network will drive adoption of 3-D TV sets and provide new opportunities for affiliates to generate new revenue and for advertisers to present their products and services in a whole new way.

ESPN has experimented with 3-D technology for more than two years. Last fall, ESPN produced a college football game that was shown in select theaters as well as to 6000 fans at the Galen Center on the University of Southern California campus.

While ESPN is developing its own camera rigs and image-processing systems, several of the broadcast TV and cable network sports divisions have joined with the two major 3-D specialists, 3Ality Digital and PACE Technologies, both in Burbank, CA, to host experimental closed telecasts to select theaters around the country.

To date, the technology has not made it into U.S. living rooms, and that could be 3-D’s biggest technological hurdle. New set-top boxes will need to be deployed at considerable expense, and MSOs will have to make room for the extra bandwidth needed to carry 3-D signals at about 3Mb/s. Some say bringing 3-D to the home might be more than five years away — assuming consumers buy the required 3-D-capable TV sets, which are on display from several major set manufacturers at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this weekend.

Also at CES, DirecTV is expected to announce its own 3-D channel, primarily movies, for North American subscribers, and BSkyB in the UK also has plans to launch a 3-D channel this year.