3D HD Gains Momentum

Sony, Fox detail plans for college BCS game

The hot topic among sports leagues and sports programmers last week was 3D HD production. Sony Electronics and Fox Sports announced a deal to present a live 3D HD broadcast of the FedEx Bowl Championship Series (BCS) college football national championship game on Jan. 8 to both VIP guests at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and paying customers at 82 3D-equipped theaters across the U.S.

Sony's sponsorship of the Fox 3D HD broadcast, which was formally unveiled at the Sports Video Group's annual League Technology Summit in New York after Fox Sports Chairman David Hill hinted at such a deal earlier this month, adds to the growing buzz in the industry over stereoscopic 3D HD production.

The announcement closely follows the NFL's demonstration 3D HD broadcast of a game between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders and the NBA's announcement that it will team with TNT to broadcast the All-Star Saturday Night event on Feb. 14 in 3D to 3D-equipped theaters.

“We're crossing the threshold from a science project to a real technology and a real broadcast medium,” says Jerry Steinberg, senior VP of field operations and engineering for Fox Sports, who will oversee Fox's standard HD and 3D HD broadcasts from Miami's Dolphin Stadium of the much-anticipated game between the University of Florida and University of Oklahoma.

Sony is sponsoring the Fox 3D broadcast partly because it will show prototype 3D-capable LCD displays at the CES show next month, as will several other set manufacturers. While 3D movies like Hannah Montana and Beowulf have been successful in 3D-equipped theaters and initial efforts at live 3D sports broadcasts are being aimed at ticketed customers in digital cinemas, most proponents think the living room is the eventual endgame for 3D fare.

Samsung and Mitsubishi have been selling 3D-capable DLP (digital light projection) HD sets for several years, and Samsung also makes a 3D plasma unit. The ability to support 3D HD on lightweight LCD displays is viewed by 3D supporters as a significant development toward potentially making 3D HD broadcasts a viable proposition for the living room.

“So much interest has been engendered by the consumer electronics manufacturers. I had no idea LCD [3D technology] would come so quickly,” says Steve Hellmuth, NBA VP of operations and technology, who spearheaded the NBA's 3D HD production of the 2007 All-Star Game and has helped the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks stage their own local 3D HD broadcasts.

Because 3D HD requires additional production costs in both equipment and personnel that ad-supported networks are unlikely to bear, industry insiders suggest that 3D HD sports will most likely come in the form of pay-per-view events or 3D subscription packages.

“I think there will be a subscription model into the home,” Steinberg says. “But you have to start with theatrical and closed-circuit distribution.”

The 3D HD BCS broadcast will be produced separately from Fox's standard HD broadcast, using a dedicated Game Creek Video mobile production truck outfitted with specialized 3D cameras and processing equipment from 3Ality Digital. Fox will supply play-by-play announcers and some of its top production talent for the 3D broadcast.

The BCS broadcast will be transmitted via Cinedigm's CineLive satellite distribution network to a Sony-sponsored event in the Paris Hotel and Casino's Theatre des Arts in Las Vegas. Over 1,200 invited guests from the CES show will see the live 3D game displayed by a Sony SXRD 4K projection system with the help of digital cinema screen technology and glasses from RealD, a 3D projection specialist. RealD, which is co-sponsoring the CES event, also teamed with 3Ality for the NFL demonstration earlier this month.

Pricey production

Digital cinema firm Cinedigm will use its satellite network to broadcast the 3D HD game nationally to 82 Cinedigm-enabled theaters, which will charge $18-22 per ticket. Cinedigm is also working with TNT and the NBA to broadcast the All-Star Saturday Night event in 3D to the same theaters.

While none of the principals involved will disclose the cost of the BCS 3D broadcast, industry sources say that a price tag of $250,000 or more for a 3D production is a conservative estimate. 3Ality Digital executives say that eventually one truck and production crew could simultaneously support 3D and 2D HD broadcasts. But for now, 3D HD still requires a separate truck. 3Ality competitor Pace HD even has its own mobile unit that it has brought to the 3D NBA events it has produced.

Steinberg and other Fox executives say the network won't absorb the additional cost of 3D HD itself, as it did when making the move to HD production. Fox believes consumer electronics manufacturers that would like to promote 3D sets will have to step up financially to support the new format, just as manufacturers subsidized early HD broadcasts. Hence the sponsorship deal with Sony for the BCS game.

Sponsoring the 3D HD broadcast of the BCS game is a good fit for Sony because it shows off the full breadth of the company's production and display technology, says Alec Shapiro, senior VP of Sony Electronics' Broadcast and Production Systems. In addition to its 4K projector, Sony's cameras will be used in 3Ality's camera rigs, and Sony will have 3D-capable consumer displays on both the CES show floor and at the Paris Hotel event.

“I think it's something we're very capable of doing,” Shapiro says. “It's a lens-to-living-room story.”

That said, Sony, Fox and 3Ality Digital execs all agree that one element of the BCS production is out of their hands. That is having a compelling 3D game to watch, instead of a 34-7 blowout, like the Chargers' victory over the Raiders.

“It's all about the game,” Steinberg says. “San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, I don't care if it's in 12D—that's a tough game to watch.”