Yes, we’re all sick of 3DTV. But like death, taxes and the sport of curling, it just refuses to die. Just this week, iSuppli predicted that global 3DTV shipments will soar to 78 million units in 2015 from just 4.2 million this year. That’s a lot of growth. The firm forecasts that revenue will rise from $7.4 billion to $64.3 billion in that same time.
Any way you slice that three dimensional pie, the cable industry is stuck with 3D and all of the challenges and headaches it will bring—along of course with phenomenal opportunities to grow content revenue substantially. That opportunity should outweigh the risks over time—but to what degree is anyone’s guess at this point. It’s just too early. That doesn’t mean the industry shouldn’t start planning its 3D future. For as silly as it might seem to predict where this is all going, it’s going somewhere big. And cable operators, programmers, vendors and even software makers need to understand the big picture now in order to work out the details in the coming years. ESPN, Discovery, DirecTV, Motorola and others already know that and are pushing hard toward that 3D future. More will soon follow.
At CableFAX, we love confusion and anxiety because it gives us yet another reason to exist. But that notwithstanding, 3DTV currently sits where HDTV sat only a decade ago. Remember all the skepticism about consumer acceptance? All the hand-wringing over the costs and risks? All the talk of advertisers not paying extra for HD—and how horrible that would be for everyone? No one talks like that anymore because HD just “is.” It’s part of the landscape. And it soon will cease to be its own buzzword. After all, no one talks about color TV anymore. It’s just TV.
The question is whether 3DTV will ever become a staple of the masses. HD isn’t there yet, but it’s getting closer every day and is fast becoming affordable for most people. $300 HD sets at CostCo? Wow. But will 3DTV achieve this kind of ubiquity? That’s actually a tough question. It’s coming, to be sure. But how “niche” will 3D be—and for how long? And how ubiquitous will 3D content become down the road?
Here are a few things to consider:
  1. Those Darned Glasses – Analysts predict that TVs will eventually be able to display 3D content without any need for viewers to wear those funky glasses. But that’s 5-7 years away. For now, we’re all stuck with them. And man, is it confusing out there. Several manufacturers make 3DTVs—all using different technologies that require, you guessed it, different kinds of glasses. Uh, boy. Some are just like the ones you use in theaters to make James Cameron ridiculously rich. Others, however, put the guts of all that 3D tech into the glasses themselves. They will run $50-$200 per pair and will require batteries. Wonderful news for all those families with lots of eyeballs to outfit. And those of us who can’t find any of our 7 existing remote controls are just bubbling with anticipation for the day we also get to lose expensive eyewear under the couch cushions. For the next few years, 3D will be expensive for families. And it won’t be mainstream. And part of the reason is those glasses.
  1. Where’s the Content? – Another reason 3D will take some time to work its way into the mainstream: A relative dearth of content. In these early years, only a handful of networks will offer compelling 3D content. Comcast and other big distributors will of course make a lot of it available via VOD—but don’t expect thousands of 3D selections any time soon. And no, wholesale 2D-to-3D conversion doesn’t cut it. A lot of content just isn’t suited for 3D. All those action movies and adventure reality shows with shaky camera work so in vogue in recent years? Forget it. Trying to convert that stuff to 3D would make viewers nauseous. James Cameron carefully positioned cameras to make Avatar’s 3D work correctly. In fact, for the big CGI-motion capture sequences, dozens of cameras shot from multiple angles at all times, enabling him to direct camera angles and shots later while editing. That’s not how most stuff is shot. For the majority of content, going 3D either won’t work or will require a complete change in how shows are produced. That change will be gradual. And no one is going to shake up their entire established workflow just to appease a tiny audience of elites with 3D sets.
  1. Stuff We Haven’t Thought About Yet – Remember that federal mandate called closed captioning? How will that work in 3D? And all those competing 3D standards out there… Are we looking at a potential battle between manufacturers similar to the disastrous Blu Ray-vs.-HD-DVD war of the HD worlds? Have cable networks thought about the training and equipment costs around 3DTV—not just for camera operators, producers and perhaps even hosts/actors, but also for the video editors who for now will have to wear those goofy glasses for 10 hours a day while editing 3D footage? Are the unions cool with all of this? Are cable operators prepared for the potential capacity crunch that may ensue as 3D and HD live simultaneously? Those all-digital upgrades will help, but with competitors constantly upgrading their own networks, operators will need every ounce of bandwidth to compete.
Again, 3DTV will most likely be huge. Big sports events, cinematic nature footage, big event movies and other appropriate content will certainly make wearing those glasses within the home more bearable and perhaps worth the sacrifice (and ridicule from other family members). But the overriding question is whether 3D technology will improve at a fast enough clip to sustain content creators’ significant investments in this space.
For the next few years, 3DTV will be a rough ride. But then again, so was HDTV. And we all know how big that got. Eventually.
SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: Much of the above was discussed at length during CableFAX’s recent Webinar “3DTV: How Can It Benefit Cable.” You can access the webinar on-demand here.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).

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