DirecTV Jumps Into the 3-D Space

Count DirecTV among the ranks of media companies with plans to kick-start a hi-def 3-D network in the near future.

In what may be one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets, the satellite-TV provider is cooking up a 3-D HDTV channel, with an eye toward launching the new service in 2010. DirecTV is expected to announce the initiative on Thursday (January 7), at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

While details remain sketchy, a source indicated that DirecTV had planned to unveil its 3-D-HD strategy on Tuesday, but switched gears after ESPN and Discovery Communications made their own back-to-back announcements.

At launch, DirecTV’s 3-D-HD programming will be a mixed bag of sports and movies.

In December, DirecTV put into orbit a satellite that will provide the additional capacity to offer the bandwidth-chewing 3-D-HD service. In theory, the company should be able to begin offering a 3D-HD feed in March, once the bird has become fully operational.

On Tuesday, ESPN and Discovery laid out their own plans for 3-D, with the sports net prepping a June launch. ESPN 3-D will debut in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off June 11 with a match between host nation South Africa and fellow Group A squad Mexico.

In its first year of operations, the new network will feature a minimum of 85 live sporting events. Bristol is currently looking to drum up support from its affiliates, and the network will occupy its own dedicated channel space.

“While we’re getting this off the ground, bandwidth will be allocated only during periods when we have the 85 events on-air,” said Sean Bratches, ESPN executive vp of sales and marketing. “In terms of how we manage it going forward, whether it’ll be a dedicated or dynamic service, that’s a decision we’ll be making in conjunction with our affiliate partners.”

Shortly after ESPN revealed its 3-D blueprint, Discovery, Sony and Imax announced they were forming a joint venture to launch a 3D service in 2011. The new venture will offer 3-D movies, specials and series via a dedicated 24-7 feed.

Unlike ESPN, which will be producing all events for its new service in native 3-D, the Discovery net will utilize a proprietary Sony technology that will allow it to convert two-dimensional archival fare to the 3-D format.

Discovery will begin courting affiliates this week, said CEO David Zaslav. “We expect it will be very well received,” Zaslav said. “We don’t have agreements yet because we’re only just announcing it.”   

Sony will handle ad sales for the joint venture.

The possibilities inherent in 3-D TV have conjured up a sense of déjà vu in TV circles, as many of the conversations of the past few days echo those of a decade ago, when HDTV became a reality. Discovery founder and chairman John Hendricks said that, as was the case with hi-def, 3-D will be deployed in three distinct stages, with a small hard core of early adopters lining up to buy new sets within the next 24-36 months, followed in shot order by “20 million affluent households” that will subsequently adopt the technology.

After that, set prices are likely to begin coming down, which in turn should lead to widespread adoption. “We see 3-D television as that next step along the way to providing consumers closer-to-reality experience,” Hendricks said, adding that he believes the channel has the potential to achieve broad distribution within the next five-to-10 years.

The Consumer Electronics Association projects that some 2 million 3DTVs will be sold in 2010, a figure that represents just 5 percent of the 35 million flat-screen sets that are likely to be make their way to American consumers’ homes this year.