Chief executives Richard L. Gelfond, left, of Imax, Howard Stringer of… (Discovery Communications )
3-D TV is coming. The question is how many people will be able to watch it.
Call it the "Avatar" effect. Cable programming giant Discovery Communications Inc., in partnership with Sony Corp. and big-screen theater operator Imax Corp., said Tuesday it would launch a 3-D channel in 2011. At the same time, Walt Disney Co.'s sports channel ESPN announced it was entering the 3-D fray with its own network set to debut this year.
"The momentum of 3-D in the last six months alone has been quite striking," said Sony Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Howard Stringer, in a conference call to trumpet the partnership on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
While the popularity of 3-D movies has been established recently by such films as "Avatar," "Up" and "The Final Destination," it nonetheless remains to be seen if consumers are ready to shell out more than $2,000 for a 3-D-compatible television set, not to mention wear those goofy glasses while sitting on their couch at home.
At present, fewer than 1 million of the nation's nearly 115 million television homes have a TV that can show 3-D content, according to the Consumer Electronics Assn. But that number is expected to grow substantially over the next few years. The association's chief economist, Shawn DuBravac, estimates that about 4.3 million 3-D-compatible sets will be sold this year, and that such TVs will account for more than 25% of all sales by 2013.
"They are building for the future," DuBravac said of the Discovery and ESPN efforts.
Discovery said its channel would initially be a mix of new programming and old 3-D shows and movies, including Sony and Imax's "Under the Sea 3D" and "Space Station 3D." ESPN plans to deliver 85 sporting events, including soccer's World Cup and next year's BCS national championship college football game in 3-D.
Making content 3-D-ready could get "very expensive," said DuBravac, a sentiment that was shared by ESPN.
"It is not for the faint of heart," said ESPN president George Bodenheimer, referring to the costs of producing in the 3-D format. "There is a significant cost involved. 3-D production is in the first inning in many regards." For starters, Bodenheimer said, stadiums and arenas must be outfitted with new cameras.
Discovery said it would have a full schedule of 3-D programming available for its channel. ESPN 3D, however, will be on the air only when it has an event to telecast. Otherwise, the signal will be dark.
ESPN has been experimenting with the 3-D format for a few years. Last fall it produced a USC football game in 3-D and showed it in select movie theaters as well as on the USC campus.
Waiting for consumers to adapt to 3-D TV is not the only challenge the ventures will face. Getting space for new networks on cable and satellite systems will be tough. Considering the cost involved in producing 3-D content, both Discovery and ESPN will want their networks available in as many homes as possible.
With so few homes now able to enjoy 3-D content, however, distributors will probably try to push the as-yet-unnamed Discovery Channel and ESPN 3D to "specialty tiers" for which subscribers must pay extra to receive.
Neither Discovery nor ESPN has begun approaching cable and satellite operators about carrying their 3-D channels. Both declined to say how many homes they hope to sign up.
Discovery and ESPN are not alone in venturing into 3-D territory. News Corp. broadcaster BSkyB also has announced plans to launch Europe's first 3-D channel. DirecTV also has been looking to launch a 3-D HD channel this year.
Sony, Panasonic and other television manufacturers have said they will begin offering 3-D TV sets for sale this year.
The new format received a boost recently when the Blu-ray Disc Assn., a group of companies that promotes the high-definition DVD format, announced it had reached a long-anticipated agreement on the standard for showing 3-D movies.