ESPN Declares 2D/3D Production a Success

Test may spur more cost-effective 3D techniques
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As

it prepares to launch its new 3D network, ESPN 3D, in
June, ESPN is weighing how to cost-effectively produce some 85 live events in
the network's first year, including World Cup soccer, NBA games, X Games 16,
college basketball and college football. The cable sports giant last month
conducted a test at its Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.,
to see if a single production team could pump out both 2D and stereoscopic 3D
coverage.

The Feb. 25 test, which centered on a Harlem
Globetrotters game in the Milk House arena at Wide World of Sports, was an
important step as networks gauge the expense of 3D. To date, costs have been
high. The few live HD sporting events broadcast in 3D have used a separate
production truck and separate cameras from the conventional 2D HD production,
much as early HD broadcasts used a production team that was separate from the
core standard-definition broadcast group.

Eventually, vendors and sports producers figured out how
to shoot SD and HD simultaneously from the same set of cameras. But that might
not be as easy to do with 3D because it may require different camera positions
to achieve a powerful 3D effect.

For the Globetrotter game, ESPN used a single set of 3D
cameras to shoot the game in 3D and show it live to VIPs and media in Orlando, on both Sony
LCDs that used battery-powered active-shutter 3D glasses and a Hyundai LCD that
used passive glasses. At the same time, ESPN recorded the left-eye feed from
the 3D cameras to produce a tape-delayed 2D broadcast, which aired the
following night on ESPN2 HD and ESPN2.

ESPN relied on NEP's SS 3D truck, a 53-foot unit that
ESPN first used to produce the Ohio State-USC college football game in 3D last
September. The truck, which NEP built in partnership with 3D production specialist
PACE, features a 3D viewing area where the production team can watch the action
on 3D LCD monitors while wearing passive 3D glasses; a "convergence station"
where operators can dynamically adjust the depth of field from multiple
cameras; and 3D-capable tape, video and engineering rooms. Key gear includes
PACE Fusion 3D camera rigs outfitted with Sony HDC-1500 cameras; a Sony
switcher and tape machines; two six-channel EVS XT-2 replay servers; and a
Solid State Logic Aysis digital audio console.

The same production team, including a director, supported
both the 2D and 3D productions-with the exception of a stereo-grapher dedicated
to the 3D pictures, and a separate tape producer who had the freedom to select
different shots for the pre-recorded ESPN2 telecast.

Since the 2D production for ESPN2 took priority over the
3D demonstration feed, ESPN used conventional 2D camera positions and framed
its shots for optimal 2D pictures, not for the most dramatic 3D effect. And it
experienced some glitches, particularly with putting a 3D camera on its Skycam
aerial camera system. Still, ESPN executives and guests in attendance were
satisfied with the quality of the 3D effect.

"I'm quite impressed with it," said Chuck Pagano,
executive VP of technology for ESPN. "I think we've proved to ourselves it can
be done."

The Globetrotters production is likely to be followed by
more tests in Orlando,
where ESPN has located its 3D development hub at its Innovation Lab within Wide
World of Sports. The network will invite various technology companies to use
the Wide World site, which has an array of sports venues across its 220 acres,
to test emerging 3D technology enhancements.

ESPN is also continuing to test 3D in the field. Last month, it shot some 3D footage of amateur
golfers playing Augusta National, the site of The Masters tournament in April.
The 3D footage, which this reporter had the opportunity to view in the NEP
truck, was impressive for its ability to show the contours of Augusta's challenging greens.

"You don't see the slopes in hi-def,
but now you do," noted John Studdert, director of sales and marketing for Sony
Broadcast.

In addition to Sony's work with Pace and NEP, the
company is also supplying cameras and equipment to a new 3D truck being
constructed by All Mobile Video, and a 3D truck that satellite operator Sky is
building in the U.K. And all of Sony's network customers are asking about 3D
production.

"I can't think of any live event now that hasn't shown
interest in 3D," Studdert said. "If the consumer can participate, this is going
to take off very quickly."

The opportunity to sell new 3D TV sets, of course, has
spurred major consumer electronics manufacturers to subsidize 3D production in
2010, with Sony sponsoring ESPN's 3D network and Panasonic underwriting three
3D channels on DirecTV. But networks don't expect those deals to last forever.
So, in addition to trying to find a way to monetize 3D through new subscriber
fees or pay-per-view deals, they are also trying to reduce the cost of 3D as
much as possible.

"We're all looking to cut costs; we're all in the same
boat," said Ken Aagaard, executive VP of engineering, operations and production
services for CBS Sports, who was in Orlando on other business and stopped by to
check out ESPN's 2D/3D test. Aagaard, who has been thinking about producing the
NCAA Final Four men's basketball championship and The Masters in 3D, explained
that networks can't afford to get saddled with the high cost of side-by-side 2D
and 3D productions.

"The broadcasters are
done paying for this," he said. "We did it with HD, and that's never going to
happen again."

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