A full-fledged 3-D television turf war is brewing, as manufacturers unveil sets capable of 3-D and cable programmers rush to create new channels for them.
Ralph Kramden finally can buy a television.
More than half a century ago, in a 1955 episode of “The Honeymooners,” the parsimonious bus driver portrayed by Jackie Gleason told his wife, Alice, that he had not bought a new television because “I’m waiting for 3-D.”
The wait will be over soon. A full-fledged 3-D television turf war is brewing, as manufacturers unveil sets capable of 3-D and cable programmers rush to create new channels for them.
Many people are skeptical that consumers suddenly will pull their LCD and plasma televisions off the wall. Beginning at around $2,000, 3-D sets at first will cost more than even the current crop of high-end flat-screens, and buyers will need special glasses — geeky goggles, really — to watch in 3-D.
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But programmers and technology companies are betting that consumers are almost ready to fall in love with television in the third dimension. In part, it could be the “Avatar” effect: With 3-D films gaining traction at the box office — James Cameron’s “Avatar” surpassed the staggering $1 billion mark last weekend — companies are determined to bring an equivalent experience to the living room.
Anticipating this wave, ESPN said Tuesday it would show World Cup soccer matches and NBA games in 3-D on a new network starting in June, and Discovery, Imax and Sony said they jointly would create a 3-D entertainment channel next year. The satellite service DirecTV is expected to announce 3-D channels at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where every major television manufacturer is planning to announce 3-D televisions and compatible Blu-ray DVD players today.
“The stars are aligning to make 2010 the launch year of 3-D,” said John Taylor, a vice president for LG Electronics USA. “It’s still just in its infancy, but when there is a sufficient amount of content available — and lots of people are working on this — there will be a true tipping point for consumers.”
The question becomes whether consumers — many of whom only recently upgraded to costly new high-definition sets — will want to watch in three dimensions enough to pay for the privilege. “I think 90 percent of the males in this country would be dying to watch the Super Bowl and be immersed in it,” said Riddhi Patel of the research firm iSuppli.
But will the experience translate to other entertainment? “You don’t necessarily want the ladies of ‘The View’ sitting around you when you watch them,” Patel said.
This week, the media companies are trying to place themselves at the forefront of an emerging technology, much as they did for HDTV a decade ago.
High-definition television needed about a decade to catch on — to the point where it has become part of the entertainment mainstream, with a sufficient stock of HD programming and the sets now affordable enough to entice middle-class buyers. Analysts expect 3-D television to go through the same curve, initially attracting first adopters for whom price is little or no object and gradually moving to other affluent and then middle-class homes as sets become more affordable and enough 3-D fare appears.
Or, of course, the technology could be a total flop.
For decades, 3-D was a gimmick for B-movies and occasionally on television (in bad quality with flimsy paper glasses), but newer technology built into the sets largely has erased those memories. Peter Fannon, a vice president in Panasonic’s technology division, called the new sets “totally different than what one had seen over the last 20 to 30 years.”
In 3-D, television makers see an opportunity to persuade households that already have HDTVs to return to the electronics store. Although television sales jumped 17 percent in 2009, the industry needs new innovations to keep the cash register ringing.
“Three-D is an effort by the industry to come up with something that will motivate consumers to trade up,” said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner Research.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief of DreamWorks, said producers were preparing “an enormous surge in 3-D content, with images that are truly beautiful on these new monitors.”
Leading the charge to television, ESPN said it would show at least 85 live events on a 3-D channel starting in June. “The sports genre is probably the best-suited to exploit this technology,” said Sean Bratches, an executive vice president at ESPN. The company has held preliminary talks with Comcast and other operators about gaining distribution; the 3-D channel could come at an added cost to subscribers. It will go dark when not showing live events.
The joint venture among Discovery Communications, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Imax will be a full-time channel featuring natural history, movies, sports, music and other programming.
Mike Vorhaus of Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting firm, said 3-D is years away from widespread adoption. For now, he said, it is “one more appetizer” for consumers who “already have a lot to digest.”
Indeed, many hurdles remain, including a lack of production equipment and dueling 3-D transmission standards. But backers such as David Zaslav, chief executive of Discovery Communications, say 3-D is bound to gain attention because consumers and producers always are striving for what looks “closest to real life.”