The Grand Tour of European 3D TV

A slew of announcements for 3D production and channels have been pouring out of Europe in recent months, with a B&C survey of 3D launches showing that broadcasters and operators in at least 15 countries have already aired 3D programs or announced plans to launch channels.

As in the U.S., satellite operators have made some of the highest profile investments, with satellite service provider SES Astra already beaming out a Astra 3D, a demo service, throughout Europe and DTH providers BSkyB in the U.K., Sky Deutschland, and Canal+ in France all having launched or announced imminent launches of 3D channels. But cable operators and IPTV providers have also been busy, with Liberty Global's UPC Broadband's cable systems transmitting 3D programs in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Poland and IPTV providers Orange in France and Deutsche Telecom in Germany expanding their 3D offerings.

"It's like everyone is marking their territory and trying to get out ahead of the trend because they sense that yes, 3D, will be successful," noted Doug I. Sheer, CEO and chief analyst at D.I.S. Consulting, which just completed a major survey of the global market for 3D production equipment.

Broadcasters are being more cautious, but networks in France, Spain and Portugal have dipped their toes in the 3D production and the BBC seems likely to produce at least some of the London 2012 Summer Olympic in 3D, though the pubcaster has not committed to actually transmitting those signals into the home.

"The pathfinders in Europe for 3D are the pay TV operators," noted David Wood, deputy director of EBU Technical and head of working groups on 3D at the DVB Project and the International Telecommunications Union. "The EBU members have been following all this with great interest and taking part in the standards discussions but most of the EBU members are only part way through their programs of HD TV conversation. Because 3D TV is built on HD TV, it will probably been some years before free to air terrestrial broadcasts become available."

On the 3D production side, Sheer notes that at least 85% of the new digital cinemas in the U.K. and 75% on the continent are 3D capable and that most of the screens are likely to go digital in the next three to five years, a trend that will boost to 3D movie production and sales of equipment, particularly digital cameras, as the use of film in movie production declines.
The exact long-term impact on production equipment sales remains cloudy, however, Sheer added. While their research shows a generally strong market for 3D equipment, he estimates that only about 1% of all OB vans have been converted to 3D in Europe.

Although the rise in 3D production is likely to boost sales for camcorders, rigs and other equipment, the size of that growth is also difficult to predict, Sheer stressed. Much will depend on how much is rented, as is often the case today with 3D productions, or purchased, and how much of the gear used in 3D productions will be repurposed HD gear. "It isn't entirely clear how much will be additive or how much of it will be part of the mix that people are already acquiring," he noted.

Here's a quick tour, market by market of all the activity, beginning with the three most active 3D markets, the U.K., France and Germany.

U.K.: The market's dominant pay TV provider BSkyB, which is 39% owned by News Corp., began extensively testing 3D technologies in 2008, producing a variety of live sports, music and cultural events, and in April of this year launched a 3D channel to over 1,000 pubs and clubs that features at least one live sporting events each week. On October 1, it will make its Sky 3D channel available to any of the three million Sky customers with a HD box that also have a 3D set in the U.K. and Ireland. Elsewhere in the market, cable operator Virgin Media has been testing the technology and the BBC has said it is hoping to produce some parts of the 2012 London Summer Olympics in 3D. Discovery Europe has received a license for a 3D channel from U.K. regulators, though no launch data or carriage agreements have been announced.

France: On the broadcast side, public broadcaster France Télévisions produced some 3D coverage of the French Open in May and the largest commercial broadcaster TF1 offered 3D coverage of several FIFA World Cup matches that were carried on IPTV and satellite providers. IPTV operator Orange, which produced some 3D tennis matches in 2008 and 2009, launched a 3D service in May of this year with French Open coverage that now airs a limited amount of special sports, documentaries and cultural programming. Pay TV rival Canal+ broadcast a dozen World Cup Games in 3D this summer, and has announced plans to launch a 3D service before Christmas. Also, France's largest cable operator Numéricable launched a demo channel this September, with a VOD 3D service planned by the end of the year.

Germany: Pay TV operator Sky Deutschland, which is 45% owned by News Corp., ran some 3D tests in March and in October will be launching a 3D channel in Germany and Austria; the channel will also be carried by cable operator Kabel BW. In April, Deutsche Telecom's IPTV service aired a hockey game in 3D and recently began offering 3D movies and documentaries on its VOD service.

Italy: Public broadcaster RAI has been testing 3D production and is providing 3D programming for SES Astra pan-European 3D channel, which carries programming from a variety of broadcasters and producers.

Netherlands: UPC's Dutch systems carried U.S. Masters golf coverage in 3D in April and Dutch cable operator Ziggo, working with Sony, aired 3D political debate in 3D in June. Ziggo recently announced plans to carry SBS Broadcasting's 3D channel Net 5 when it bows sometimes this month.

Portugal: Pay TV provider ZON aired two warm-up soccer matches before the World Cup and public broadcaster RTP offered 3D coverage of some FIFA World Cup matches that was carried on IPTV provider MEO, which has also aired some tennis in 3D.

Spain: In March, satellite service Hispasat transmitted the country's first soccer match in 3D to a cinema and in April Canal + Spain offered a 3D concert to subscribers.

Switzerland: UPC Cablecom aired the U.S. Masters in 3D in April.

Czech Republic: In June, UPC's Czech system launched HD+, a 3D channel created by SAT Plus.

Estonia: In May cable operator STV launched a 3D channel STV HD1, featuring sports and other programming.

Poland: UPC did a 3D demo on June 1 and multichannel provider "n" has launched a trial nSports 3D channel.

Russia: DTH provider NTV-Plus broadcast World Cup games in 3D this summer and has since inked a partnership with Panasonic to launch a 3D channel this October.

Pan European: Luxembourg-based SES Astra has launched 3D demo channel and Eurosport has offered 3D coverage of some special events, including the French Open in May, which was transmitted to over 3,000 retail stores throughout Europe.