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ESPN Declares 2D/3D Production a Success

As it prepares to launch its new 3D network, ESPN 3D, in June, ESPN is weighing how to cost-effectively produce some 85 live events in the network’s first year, including World Cup soccer, NBA games, X Games 16, college basketball and college football. The cable sports giant last month conducted a test at its Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., to see if a single production team could pump out both 2D and stereoscopic 3D coverage.

The Feb. 25 test, which centered on a Harlem Globetrotters game in the Milk House arena at Wide World of Sports, was an important step as networks gauge the expense of 3D. To date, costs have been high. The few live HD sporting events broadcast in 3D have used a separate production truck and separate cameras from the conventional 2D HD production, much as early HD broadcasts used a production team that was separate from the core standard-definition broadcast group.

Eventually, vendors and sports producers figured out how to shoot SD and HD simultaneously from the same set of cameras. But that might not be as easy to do with 3D because it may require different camera positions to achieve a powerful 3D effect.

For the Globetrotter game, ESPN used a single set of 3D cameras to shoot the game in 3D and show it live to VIPs and media in Orlando, on both Sony LCDs that used battery- powered active-shutter 3D glasses and a Hyundai LCD that used passive glasses. At the same time, ESPN recorded the left-eye feed from the 3D cameras to produce a tapedelayed 2D broadcast, which aired the following night on ESPN2 HD and ESPN2.

ESPN relied on NEP’s SS 3D truck, a 53-foot unit that ESPN first used to produce the Ohio State-USC college football game in 3D last September. The truck, which NEP built in partnership with 3D production specialist PACE, features a 3D viewing area where the production team can watch the action on 3D LCD monitors while wearing passive 3D glasses; a “convergence station” where operators can dynamically adjust the depth of field from video and engineering rooms. Key gear includes PACE Fusion 3D camera rigs outfitted with Sony HDC-1500 cameras; a Sony switcher and tape machines; two six-channel EVS XT-2 replay servers; and a Solid State Logic Aysis digital audio console.

The same production team, including a director, supported both the 2D and 3D productions— with the exception of a stereographer dedicated to the 3D pictures, and a separate tape producer who had the freedom to select different shots for the pre-recorded ESPN2 telecast.

Since the 2D production for ESPN2 took priority over the 3D demonstration feed, ESPN used conventional 2D camera positions and framed its shots for optimal 2D pictures, not for the most dramatic 3D effect. And it experienced some glitches, particularly with putting a 3D camera on its Skycam aerial camera system. Still, ESPN executives and guests in attendance were satisfied with the quality of the 3D effect.

“I’m quite impressed with it,” said Chuck Pagano, executive VP of technology for ESPN. “I think we’ve proved to ourselves it can be done.”

The Globetrotters production is likely to be followed by more tests in Orlando, where ESPN has located its 3D development hub at its Innovation Lab within Wide World of Sports. The network will invite various technology companies to use the Wide World site, which has an array of sports venues across its 220 acres, to test emerging 3D technology enhancements.

ESPN is also continuing to test 3D in the field. Last month, it shot some 3D footage of amateur golfers playing Augusta National, the site of The Masters tournament in April. The 3D footage, which this reporter had the opportunity to view in the NEP truck, was impressive for its ability to show the contours of Augusta’s challenging greens.

“You don’t see the slopes in hi-def, but now you do,” noted John Studdert, director of sales and marketing for Sony Broadcast.

In addition to Sony’s work with Pace and NEP, the company is also supplying cameras and equipment to a new 3D truck being constructed by All Mobile Video, and a 3D truck that satellite operator Sky is building in the U.K. And all of Sony’s network customers are asking about 3D production.

“I can’t think of any live event now that hasn’t shown interest in 3D,” Studdert said. “If the consumer can participate, this is going to take off very quickly.”

The opportunity to sell new 3D TV sets, of course, has spurred major consumer electronics manufacturers to subsidize 3D production in 2010, with Sony sponsoring ESPN’s 3D network and Panasonic underwriting three 3D channels on DirecTV. But networks don’t expect those deals to last forever. So, in addition to trying to find a way to monetize 3D through new subscriber fees or pay-per-view deals, they are also trying to reduce the cost of 3D as much as possible.

“We’re all looking to cut costs; we’re all in the same boat,” said Ken Aagaard, executive VP of engineering, operations and production services for CBS Sports, who was in Orlando on other business and stopped by to check out ESPN’s 2D/3D test. Aagaard, who has been thinking about producing the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball championship and The Masters in 3D, explained that networks can’t afford to get saddled with the high cost of side-by-side 2D and 3D productions.

“The broadcasters are done paying for this,” he said. “We did it with HD, and that’s never going to happen again.”