CBS made broadcast history last night by producing the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game in stereoscopic 3D and transmitting it to 55 theaters nationwide through Cinedigm's satellite-based digital cinema delivery system.
CBS' 3D production, which was underwritten by TV set-maker LG Electronics, was the second collegiate national championship game to be broadcast in 3D, following Fox's 3D broadcast of the BCS college football championship in January 2009. The 3D broadcast of the thrilling contest that saw Duke win 61-59 over Butler followed 3D broadcasts of Final Four national semifinal games on Saturday night, which were broadcast to about 20 theaters nationally.
While CBS' broadcast footprint was smaller than originally expected---due to high demand for 3D-capable screens from competing 3D theatrical releases Clash of the Titans and How to Train Your Dragon---the network was pleased with how its first live 3D production turned out and is anticipating more 3D coverage this summer, perhaps of tennis and golf.
"It was way past my wildest imagination, it was really good," said Ken Aagaard, EVP of operations and engineering for CBS Sports. "Everything really worked well."
CBS used Fusion 3D camera rigs from Vince Pace, who developed the camera systems used in the 3D blockbuster movie "Avatar" and will be working with ESPN and NEP this week to produce 3D coverage of The Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
CBS used six 3D cameras in all, including overhead cameras mounted above both baskets, and also pulled video from a 2D SkyCam aerial camera that was upconverted to 3D using a Sony production switcher. Aagaard said that CBS also converted all the LG commercials and CBS promos during the broadcast, as well as a halftime documentary piece, using the same technique.
This reporter had the opportunity to view the 3D broadcast at an LG event held at Clearview Cinemas in downtown Manhattan, which was showing the game on two screens. The 3D coverage was compelling, particularly from the overhead cameras mounted on the backboards and from a "slash" camera located about twenty rows behind the basket, which seemed to place the viewer amid a sea of waving Butler fans.
One particularly memorable shot was a replay from the overhead camera that showed Butler miss two closely-contested layups and then finally score on a tip-in. The graphics were also dynamic without being overwhelming. During breaks in the action, CBS placed a "Final Four" logo that seemed to float in space to the left and in front of a scoreboard graphic that appeared just above the crowd's heads at the bottom of the screen.
CBS changed its graphic look numerous times over the weekend to get the desired effect, said Aagaard, and darkened the bottom of the screen to avoid fans appearing to walk in front of the score box.
"Graphics will be one of the new frontiers in the whole process of 3D," he said. "We felt pretty good about where we put the clock and the score sitting in the plane. We didn't want to make the convergence too big."
There were some technical glitches, however. The game started out with a lip-synch problem with announcers Steve Lappas and Dave Ryan, which was subsequently fixed. Some of the shots from the traditional "cover" camera located near midcourt seemed a bit blurry, though Aagaard said the production team had changed the framing of the camera between Saturday and Monday night to address that problem.
More significant were about a half-dozen instances throughout the game where coverage was disrupted by a loud buzzing noise and a loss of viewable picture, as the live feed turned into a mess of picture artifacts. In one case, this mishap occurred as a Butler playing was driving to the basket, eliciting a groan from the crowd.
Aagaard said those glitches were due to a synchronization problem with the left - and right-eye images as they were transcoded for transmission. While CBS was producing the game in its preferred 1080-line-interlace format, the video needed to be transcoded to 720-line-progressive to serve Cinedigm's digital cinema screens. Aagaard added that the lip-synch issue was also a transmission problem, and wasn't perceivable in on-site monitoring.
While 3D is obviously still a complicated medium to transmit live, Aagaard is proud of the coverage CBS yielded from only six cameras. He said that even if they didn't care for the 3D effect, an avid basketball fan would have still enjoyed coverage of the game, which didn't miss any significant action compared to 2D coverage.
Looking ahead, Aagaard would like to produce the U.S. Open tennis championship in Queens, N.Y. in 3D as well as some golf coverage, perhaps even the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisc.
"That's a links course, and it would look good in 3D," said Aagaard, who is also considering SEC football as another 3D target.
Future 3D productions would likely be dependent on securing sponsorships like the one from LG for the Final Four, as well as distribution through both digital cinemas and new 3D satellite and cable channels. But Aagaard is optimistic.
"We'd like to look at everything," said Aagaard. "This was the grand experiment, and it really went pretty well."
Aagaard and Pace will both be recognized for their contributions to broadcast production technology at Broadcasting & Cable's 13th Annual Technology Leadership Awards, to be held Monday, Apr. 12 at the Las Vegas Hilton.