ESPN To Discontinue ESPN 3D by Year's End

As first reported by the Sports Video Group, ESPN will shut down its 3D network by the end of the year. ESPN 3D, which launched in June 2010, has struggled to gain traction with viewers as the adoption of 3D television sets by U.S. consumers has yet to meet the sky-high expectations of set manufacturers. As the primary outlet for live 3D sports programming over the past three years, its demise represents a major blow to the viability of 3D sports in the U.S.

In an official statement, ESPN said, “Due to limited viewer adoption of 3D services to the home, ESPN is discontinuing ESPN 3D. We are committing our 3D resources to other products and services that will better serve fans and affiliates. Nobody knows more about sports in 3D than ESPN, and we will be ready to provide the service to fans if or when 3D does take off. As technology leaders, we continue to experiment with things like Ultra High Definition television (also known as Ultra HD television or UHDTV) production tools to produce our current ESPN family of HD channels.”

Since the network’s launch, the production quality of its live 3D telecasts has improved exponentially, and costs have been reduced significantly, but the network, nonetheless, never caught on with sports fans the way ESPN expected. The network launched with carriage on DIRECTV, Comcast, and AT&T U-verse (which briefly pulled the network from its lineup last fall) and has since engineered deals with Time Warner Cable, Verizon FiOS, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, and others.

In an effort to feed the 3D content pipe for its consumer TV sets, Sony signed on as the official technology sponsor during the network’s inaugural year, supplying cameras and other 3D technology, as well as funding for the productions. Sony re-upped in 2011 for X Games and NCAA college-football productions. CAMERON PACE Group (CPG) and NEP Broadcasting also provided 3D gear, facilities, and expertise for ESPN 3D productions, with both vendors constructing several 3D production trucks since the network’s launch.

Regardless of its financial failure or success, ESPN 3D served as the catalyst for several major leaps forward in live-production technology. In year two of its existence, ESPN worked with the CPG and NEP to develop a “5D” production model that molded the 2D and 3D productions into a single combined effort sharing trucks, crew, and cameras. In March, ESPN began using 2D-to-3D–conversion technology to produce the 3D feed for its MLS telecasts as part of the continued cost-cutting effort.

After launching with coverage of the 2010 World Cup from South Africa, ESPN 3D produced its first event in-house with the MLB Home Run Derby from Anaheim, CA, in July 2010. The network went on to produce the Summer X Games that summer, as well as the BCS Championship Game and the Masters golf tournament in 3D during the first half of 2011. ESPN 3D went on to produce hundreds of events, including NCAA college football, college basketball, NBA Playoffs and Finals, Grand Slam tennis tournaments, Summer and Winter X Games, the Little League World Series, MLS and international soccer, boxing, and more.

The discontinuation of ESPN 3D raises serious questions regarding the future of 3D sports programming in the U.S. While Europe — especially the UK — has seen continued interest in live 3D sports, American consumers failed to adopt the format at a high rate. In addition, HBS (Host Broadcast Services), which will once again produce the world feed for the FIFA World Cup, has yet to confirm whether the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be produced in 3D (although a 4K/Ultra HD production is highly likely).

For its part, Sony, has continued to push 3D, even with its new commitment to 4K/Ultra HD production (it will test 4K-production technology at the Confederations Cup in Brazil and at Wimbledon in London this month). The company has a deal with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club to produce Wimbledon matches in 3D for the third consecutive year. ESPN 3D has carried these matches since 2011, although it is not known whether the network will carry the coverage from AELTC later this month.

ESPN did not provide an official shutdown date for its 3D network, saying just that it would be discontinued by the end of 2013. The Summer X Games, a staple on the ESPN 3D schedule over the past three years, take place in Los Angeles at the end of July. There are currently no events listed in the Upcoming Live Events section on the ESPN Website.

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