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Next Year Is Crucial for 3DTV

If 2010 was the year 3DTV became a reality, 2011 will go some way to proving whether or not the industry’s optimism is justified.

By the end of the year more than twenty dedicated 3D channels will have started, thirteen of them in Europe. These range from the Sky DTH family of BSkyB, Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, which launched simultaneously on October 1, to dedicated cable broadcasts in Finland, Estonia and the Czech Republic. Add in other major trials and planned commercial launches and the figure tops 50.

That two major IBC Innovation Awards this year went to 3DTV (to Sky for its pioneering launch of Sky 3D and to FIFA for its groundbreaking 3D coverage of the World Cup) was fitting given that much of the discussion on the showfloor was dominated by the topic. Yet despite the marketing campaigns of broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers there remain significant barriers to overcome if 3D is to be made mass market.

There are, for example, question marks concerning consumer’s willingness to pay for high-priced 3D TV sets in return for limited content. By 2014, just 10 percent of all installed TV sets in the United Kingdom will be 3D-capable with France and Germany around 8 percent (Screen Digest). BSkyB aside, few operators have the pockets to fund a portfolio of original 3D production.

“The lack of true 3D content has created a sellers’ environment and can result in broadcasters being expected to pay unrealistic premiums, particularly when they themselves are currently unable to charge customers a premium,” says Futuresource Research Consultant David Watkins.

There are also concerns that poor technical quality could kill the market altogether. Sky has been leading the call to ensure natively shot 3D content is delivered as far as practical, and warning producers away from reliance on 2D-3D conversion.

“We’re seeing a gigantic variation in quality,” declared Sky’s Director of Product Development Brian Lenz at IBC2010. “The conversion process is too much like that of colourisation – the idea makes sense, but the execution results in a poor product.”

Discovery Communications has taken a similar stance. “3D is not a technology, but an optical illusion in which technology is used to provide you with an experience of depth,” the group’s European Executive Vic President John Honeycutt told an IBC2010 audience. “We have to make sure the storytelling is right. That’s the biggest difference between the HD transition and the opportunity in 3D.”

Even if 3D programming passes the quality threshold no one can be fully confident that people will actually take to watching it in the home.

“Good 3D has only ever been watched and quality-checked by people in the industry who work with technology for a living,” notes Ray Feeney, an Academy Award-winning visual effects consultant who attended IBC’s D-Cinema conference sessions. “Who knows what the physiological reaction will be of viewers who spend two hours or more a day in the home watching 3D?”

Even U.S. sports network ESPN, which launched a 3D channel to coincide with the opening of the World Cup, is reviewing whether to continue the channel into a second year.

There are, however, reasons to believe the bubble will not burst. European feature film producers are proving that 3D need not be the preserve of Hollywood studios with blockbuster budgets.

British independent production “StreetDance 3D” broke the mold when it became the first European live-action 3D release this summer. Costing just €5 million it went on to make over €32m worldwide. A sequel is in the works and there are several other low-budget, live-action 3D films in development in Poland, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The industry can also cast ahead to 2012 as a milestone around which to promote the format. Both Manolo Romero, CEO of Olympic Broadcast Services, and Roger Mosey, BBC’s 2012 director, used their respective IBC2010 keynotes to reveal that 3D would play a part in coverage of the London Games.

Even more encouraging, there’s a growing belief that the technology itself is not the greatest issue. If 3D is to become more than a novelty a thorough understanding of its limitations and possibilities are crucial in order to treat the format as a creative tool on a par with lighting, colour or sound.

“We are still grappling with technology,” says wildlife producer Vicky Stone. “It is far from being as easy to set up and shoot as with 2D, which must be the ideal. Nonetheless, the time has come for filmmakers to move on from stereo basics and to adapt 3D to the creative demands of the story.”

With IBC’s help the industry will continue to build that expertise. “We are confident that 3D will be a huge success, but we need to be careful,” says Lenz. “It’s not just up to broadcasters like Sky, but to technology partners, content suppliers and CE manufacturers to make this work. Right now we are all in a fortunate position because the destiny of 3D is in the industry’s hands.”