ESPN 3D on DirecTV

Conventional wisdom says that hardware precedes software. We’ve seen this over and over again in the personal computer industry; we had USB ports on PCs for years before there were many practical applications for them. Now we have programs that run directly off of USB thumb drives, as well as a host of peripherals and accessories that can use USB connections.

So it appeared that hardware would once again precede the software (content) in the 3DTV market. Samsung and Mitsubishi have sold 3D-capable rear projection sets for years, and now the first 3D-capable flat panel HDTVs are starting to ship. We’ve got a lot of 3D content that has been shown in cinemas, but it would seem that we’d have to wait before we get to a critical mass of 3D content that is ready to deliver to the home. (Presumably that’s why Toshiba and Panasonic both have included real-time 2D-to-3D conversion features in some of theire HDTVs.)

But that does not seem to be slowing down the services that deliver video content to consumers. The Sky satellite service in the UK has announced a dedicated 3DTV channel in April. In this country, Comcast plans to provide some 3D cable coverage of the Masters golf tournament in April. DirecTV previously announced plans for a pay-per-view 3D channel and an On Demand 3D channel. This week, it announced that ESPN 3D channel will be added to its HDTV offerings, and will be included at no additional cost for any HD subscriber who already has ESPN.

ESPN’s 3D channel has already received a lot of attention for its plans to cover the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament this summer, starting on June 11 with South Africa vs. Mexico. ESPN also plans 3D coverage of the XGames, college football championships, and both college and professional basketball games in 2011.

All of this seems to me to put the content horse slightly ahead of hardware cart. Yes, we’ve now got 3DTV flat panel models entering the retail channel, but the installed base for April will have to measure in the single thousands at best. When viewing audiences are measured in the millions, this seems like a ridiculously small target market. There can’t possible be enough 3DTV viewers to recoup the extra costs of the 3DTV production. I suspect that two motivating factors provide the incentive for these services. First, it’s a chance to plant your flag at the top of the technology mountain, in hopes that you gain a reputation for being an innovator and a source for 3DTV content for consumers when they get around to buying a 3D-capable set. And the other reason is that it gives them a chance to work out the bugs of this new technology in a relatively low risk setting; if you don’t have a lot of people watching when you make a mistake, the damage is limited.

I still hold that adding a few dozen hours of sports programming a year to the fifty hours or so of 3D movies being produced by Hollywood does not add up to enough programming to make it worth getting a 3DTV yet. Even Twentieth Century Fox doesn’t think that there’s enough installed base to warrant releasing a 3D Blu-ray version of Avatar, so I think that any efforts at broadcasting 3DTV content at this point has to be viewed as experimental. Many people will happily choose to participate in these experiments, but I think most of us will wait two or three years for sufficient content to be produced (or converted from existing 2D programming) to make it worth investing in a 3DTV.