Exclusive deals for 3-D sports broadcasts make for viewer frustration

As new owners of 3-D television sets are finding, just buying the technology isn't enough to ensure reception of sports broadcasts in 3-D. Because of exclusive deals, 3-D broadcasts are limited to certain services — a source of deep frustration to 3-D viewers.

Take the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which is being broadcast by CBS Sports in 3-D. It is available exclusively from DIRECTV (and sponsored by Panasonic), the direct-to-home satellite service. A subscription is the only way to watch the games in 3-D.

Getting sports in 3-D has been frustrating for owners of 3-D sets from the beginning. For example, the Masters Golf Tournament (sponsored by Sony) was available in 3-D on Comcast's network along with a few other cable operators, but it was not offered on any satellite or telco TV services. A recent NFL preseason game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots (sponsored by Sony) could be viewed in 3-D only on Verizon's FiOS network.

This is because broadcast rights vary for each major sporting event. Rights holders are able to negotiate individual deals with subscription TV services, such as cable, satellite or telco TV.

For the viewer who spends big bucks for a 3-D TV and $150 for each pair of glasses, watching sports programming in 3-D is an act of chance.

This summer, DIRECTV launched three dedicated 3-D channels. One features pay-per-view content, another features live sports, movies and other events, such as concerts. The third channel offers VOD content in 3-D.

DIRECTV has been working with technology partners such as Panasonic and Sony to create its own 3-D video content to fill the channels.

There is no doubt that the exclusive distribution of 3-D sports broadcasts is further limiting an already small pool of potential viewers of 3-D events. According to iSuppli, only 1.8 million out of a total of 46.5 million TVs shipped to retailers in the first quarter of 2010 were 3-D-enabled. That's about 4 percent.

That number is expected to grow substantially during the next 18 months, but it won't be huge. iSuppli predicted that by the end of 2011, manufacturers will ship about 12 million 3-D-capable TVs for the whole year.

During the next couple of years, the same sporting events will be available in 3-D on multiple TV services. ESPN is already moving in this direction. It's offering its ESPN 3D network, which launched this summer, on DIRECTV, Comcast and AT&T U-Verse. So far, the 3-D programming is limited to special events. ESPN 3D broadcast the World Cup soccer tournament in 3-D, and this fall it will carry 13 college football games in 3-D.

As other sports broadcasters, such as CBS Sports, add more 3-D coverage, distribution deals will likely expand to multiple TV services. "You'll see this open up more and more," Steven Roberts, senior vice president of new media and business development for DIRECTV, said. "But for the near future, the important events will be exclusive. It's really all about the broadcasting rights."