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The TV Business

RIP:  Consumer 3D

Originally posted in August of  2010, this article turned out to be (regrettably) accurate about the difficulties in making 3D for the home a commercial success.

The incredible progress in shooting, transmitting, and displaying 3D television boggles the mind.  In just a few years since 3D splashed at Winter CES, consumers at home have witnessed brilliant coverage of FIFA’s World Cup, the NCAA Final Four, and marquee baseball events:  MLB’s All-Star game, and David Ortiz’s home-run derby power blasts into deep right at the Angel’s Anaheim baseball palace the night before.  We have a full-time 3D Sports service from ESPN.  The golden triangle of consumer electronics companies, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony are subsidizing first-generation production costs and LG, the scrappy competitor whose high-definition sets are showing up in more and more upscale hotel rooms, sponsored the NCAA Final Four in 3D.   Even more telling than the range of events has been the maturing of production techniques and technologies.  During the FIFA World Cup Final, virtually no eyeball-popping, vertigo-inducing, rip-the-eyeglasses off shots made it to the Cinedigm-equipped theater where I saw the production live.

All in all, a giant leap – if not for mankind, then at least for fans of the immersive experience that really good 3D can be.  Clearly the industry has taken to heart the cautions of SONY Picture’s Buzz Hays (who holds the title “Executive Stereoscopic 3D Producer for Sony Corp.”).  Says Buzz: “it’s incredibly easy to do bad 3D.   And it’s hard to do good 3D.”  The fastest way to turn consumers away in queasy dismay is to fill the screen with 3D gimmicks and screen gyrations; the television quickly turns into a live version of a theme ride more appropriate to Universal or Disneyworld.  Great if you’re a kid, not so wonderful if your adult eyes, inner ear, and brain have reached an understanding that only the third Scotch disturbs.

Note to all would-be 3D participants:  making the audience sick to their stomachs is not a good business model.

But having cheered for the progress, let’s look at a few issues that remain unanswered:

  • What happens when the subsidy music stops?   Whether the production costs are 1.5, 2, or 2.5 that of a conventional HDTV shoot, they aren’t at parity.   That ‘cost-no-more’ threshold was essential to drive the production transition from standard to high definition.  Just as with HD, the production costs need to plummet and the number of available sets in consumers’ homes needs to skyrocket.  In their attempt to create television receivers with higher perceived value (and selling price!), the consumer electronics industry is betting heavily on 3D to stem the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea drops in television receivers’ prices.   They’re also pushing on the technologists and hoping that NEP, Sony, Pace, and 3Ality will uncover a way of using something other than a pair of one hundred thousand dollar cameras at each camera position.  But while costs are coming down on the content creation side, as well as the second generation of displays and active-glasses, the cost issue is a tough one.
  • Will consumers accept wearing glasses to view 3D?  Sir Howard Stringer made the somewhat astringent observation that (paraphrasing) ‘we’ve been wearing glasses for years; what’s the big deal?”  Fair enough, so let’s not rehash the conventional ‘will customers tolerate the geeky-things’ argument.   But the moment one puts on the lenses, whether active or passive systems, the brilliant, vivid picture on Sir H’s brand-spanking new SONY 240hz, LED television goes nearly as dim as grandma’s old tube set.  Aren’t consumers forking over three thousand dollars going to ask: “how come the picture is so dark?”  It’s a short step to thinking “well, maybe we should wait until it’s fixed and a lot brighter like the HDTV we already bought last year.”
  • The other not-talked about issue regarding the glasses is the incidence of nausea and headache – particularly among women viewers.  Much was made of the Samsung public caution not to drink and watch 3D (or drive for that matter); somehow I doubt that this will really impact 3D SuperBowl keg parties next year.  But with women being the gatekeeper for any gadget for their homes, it’s hard to see anyone who got sick watching Avatar allowing their husbands to queue up at holiday time for a 3D set.
  • Directors and producers: let’s man up and admit that the traditional covering shot at midfield, midcourt, midpitch, whatever just doesn’t have much 3D pizzazz.  And you don’t need more than your high-school physics to understand that the further away an object is, the less your eyes perceive depth.  Sure, you see occlusion but not the degree of separation that you see for objects at arms-length.  So far, no director or producer that I’ve seen has been willing to scrap the master high shot; it’s too heavily ingrained in the television playbook.  But in the interest of seeing how it would work, would someone please experiment by shooting a contest with the lower, 3D enabled cameras as the primary story-telling vehicles and employ the high-shot for replays? (just the opposite of today’s conventional camera sequencing!)
  • As any King Kong fan knows, size matters. And whether it’s a 52” television for the home or a 40’ screen in a digital theater, the electronic equivalent of size: compression matters.  Not to be boringly technical, every current generation live 3D transmission scheme robs bits so that the stereo images (left and right cameras) can ultimately make it through progressively thinner pipes to get to the home or theater. There are better (and worse) schemes around, but too much compression (and too many standards-conversion steps) robs the pictures of their snap and vitality.  As with evolving production techniques, compression and transmission levels are a work-in-progress.   (Which is a polite way of saying that I’ve seen some good productions become bad productions because too many bits were lost in translation.)
  • Gamers’ rate-of-3D adoption, portable 3D screens (and any others) that don’t require glasses, and Hollywood’s love affair with 3D are all important factors that will impact the overall business, but for most of us, successful 3D television means ready availability of 3D sports, 3D Planet Earth-like productions, and a smattering of our favorite films in 3D.  It’s no accident that ESPN, closely followed by FOX, CBS, MLB, Sony and Discovery are leading the charge.   But even these sports and entertainment giants will have to face the reality that NO advertiser is going to pay EXTRA for a 3D commercial (an updated version of no advertiser ever paid more for the HD commercial) and that to be successful, tens of millions of 3D capable sets have to be sold, not the paltry five million that consultancy iSuppli estimates this year.

There is, after all, a reason why it’s called the television business.  In all the legitimate excitement about genuine 3D progress, let’s remember that for a mass medium to survive, there has to be a MASS.

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