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Future of 3D-TV murky as ESPN ends a channel

Households’ usage still limited

A television cameraman operated a 3-D camera at the Championship playoff final soccer match between Crystal Palace and Watford at Wembley Stadium in London last month.

Eddie Keogh/Reuters

A television cameraman operated a 3-D camera at the Championship playoff final soccer match between Crystal Palace and Watford at Wembley Stadium in London last month.

NEW YORK —A few years ago, 3-D was hailed as the next big thing in television, the logical successor to high definition. But viewers in the United States did not buy the hype, and now the eye-popping format is seen as an expensive flop.

That impression was cemented last week when ESPN, the nation’s largest sports network and an early adopter of 3-D technology, said it was turning off its three-year-old 3-D channel. A spokeswoman said the decision was “due to limited consumer adoption of 3-D services to the home.”

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The news spurred debate about whether anyone would be left watching in 3-D soon, or whether anything would be available worth watching.

“Many in the industry have said over the last few years that if ESPN ever pulled the plug on 3-D TV, that would be the format’s final chapter,” Phillip Swann, publisher of the industry website TVPredictions.com, wrote after ESPN’s announcement. “Today, it’s hard to deny that statement.”

The only other big 3-D channel, called 3net (a joint venture of Discovery Communications, Sony, and Imax), said it was undeterred. But 3net has had a hard time getting onto cable and satellite systems, and a Discovery spokesman said last week that “it’s our equivalent of R&D,” or research and development, hardly a rousing endorsement.

The format is healthier at the box office, but even there, only 36 films were released in 3-D last year, down 20 percent from the peak in 2011, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Overall, 3-D box office revenue was flat.

When television manufacturers started to aggressively market the technology in 2010 — helped by the theatrical release of “Avatar” by James Cameron in December 2009 and fantastical ideas about how it would feel to be immersed in a sporting event or an action movie — skeptics predicted little consumer demand for 3-D television. They turned out to be right. Television owners generally rejected the glasses that were usually required to see in 3-D and found the format was not as immersive as promised.

But pioneering networks like ESPN, controlled by Walt Disney Co., learned much about what did and did not work. In stadiums, for instance, 3-D cameras had to be closer to the field than traditional cameras.

ESPN televised 380 sporting events in 3-D, but the dedicated channel never became big enough to be rated by Nielsen Co. That may be because it was sold separately from other channels; the research firm SNL Kagan recently estimated it had “well under 1 million” paying subscribers.

Amy Phillips, an ESPN spokeswoman, said, “While we don’t necessarily have a gauge of the most popular, we do know from viewer feedback that big events like the BCS National Championship Game and the tennis majors were fan favorites.”

Some Summer Olympics events were televised in 3-D last year, too. NBCUniversal has not said whether it will do that again during the Winter Olympics next February in Sochi, Russia.

Carolina Milanesi, a research vice president for Gartner, a technology research company, said the 3-D format suffered from “a chicken-and-egg situation where content wasn’t created because of low penetration of 3-D TVs in the home, and consumers were not buying 3-D TVs due to the lack of compelling content.”

While many big-screen television sets now come with 3-D capabilities and glasses, most households with those sets rarely use them, if at all. “Our family falls in that category,” Milanesi said.

Data from DisplaySearch, a unit of NPD Group, suggests that sales of 3-D sets are stronger overseas. For the 3net joint venture, that has been important.

“The content library is helping us across a number of business segments,” said David C. Leavy, a spokesman for Discovery. “Some Europe and Asia markets where there is more interest and competition among operators are doing deals with 3-D content.”

Meanwhile, the television manufacturers that had been pushing 3-D are now promoting a newer format, “ultra HD” or 4K, which promises four times the resolution of the high-definition sets that most Americans own. Never mind that in many cases the additional detail is not perceptible by the human eye; 3net has been emphasizing its production of programming in 4K, and ESPN said its experiments with that format would continue.

ESPN also left the door open to more 3-D programming, if only slightly.

“Creating quality 3-D telecasts takes skill and learnings specific to 3-D production — and we have more experience than anyone to do that,” Phillips said.

“If consumer adoption should take off in the coming years,” she said, “we have the knowledge and the expertise to ramp up quickly and deliver compelling programming.”

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