For decades the two dimensional television reigned as king of the American household. From its dignified perch, TV watched over us as the babysitter, sex educator, tireless companion and the fire by which we warmed ourselves.
Lately though, the once-mighty TV has fallen on hard times. No longer the center of the entertainment universe, TV is now just the largest screen in the house.
Tired of the “dying business” label, and hoping to staunch the wound, hardware manufacturers in January announced the release of 3D television sets at the this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Costing anywhere from $3,000 for an entry-level model, and up to $9,000 for a high-end unit, manufacturers and broadcasters alike have placed a big bet on 3D as the future entertainment.
Yoon Boo-keun, head of Samsung Electronics’ TV division, said the company expects to ship 2 million units this year, according to Asia News Net. Quoting a Sony senior executive, Macworld wrote in early January that the company anticipates that 50 percent of all televisions it sells will be 3D by the beginning of its 2012 fiscal year.
Echoing the announcement of 3D television sets was the news that several major content providers such as Disney (owner of ESPN) and Discovery Networks have immediate plans for 3D broadcast channels. This summer ESPN plans to broadcast 25 matches from the FIFA World Cup in 3D, including the opening match between Mexico and host nation South Africa. Sony also announced plans for a 3D network, as has LG.
However, no sooner had electronics makers and broadcasters placed their bets on 3D’s bright future, than pundits were lining up to dance on its tombstone. Henry Blodget, publisher of The Business Insider, flatly declared in an article, “3D TV is Dead on Arrival.”
“3D has been around in one form or another for decades,” Blodget wrote, saying that 3D will not succeed because it’s not compelling to viewers.
We’ve seen a bunch of movies in 3D, starting 30 years ago. The first one was lousy. The recent ones, which we’ve seen several of, aren’t much better. 3D doesn’t improve anything: A great movie is a great movie with or without it… And 3D gives us a headache. Lastly, we’re just not wearing those glasses in our living room.
At the end of his post, Blodget was kind enough to admit his article was link bait. He hadn’t actually experienced 3D, he said. But he did throw open the comment section so that those who were knowledgeable could share their experiences.
Chris Boardman was a bit more nuanced in his assessment, but no less blunt.
“The introduction of 3D is nothing more than a hail mary attempt by multinational media companies to preserve their dying business model [of controllable distribution],” he said.
Boardman spent the last 18 months launching a 3D digital signage network. He has been in the entertainment business for more than 30 years, producing music for more than 100 movies and television shows and winning six Emmys. “The introduction of 3D TV and home based 3D is crucial to the survival of the entire food chain-hardware, software and content production,” Boardman says.
Not everyone thinks things are so grim.
“I don’t think people have really seen what this thing is capable of yet,” says David Berman, director of training and public relations for Home Technology Specialists of America. Berman has sold and installed home data networks, entertainment systems and peripherals for 30 years and says that people are forming their expectations of 3D television based on how they remember the platform in its infancy, when it was “a hokey gadget.”
The impact 3D will have on equipment sales will be similar to the effect of introducing color TVs into a black and white world, says Berman. “When we went to color from black and white, it was so much more compelling that it grew the marketplace because people were drawn to it,” Berman explains.
“Once you hear a 50,000 watt stereo,” he says, “you can’t listen to a clock radio anymore.”
Trying to convince consumers to switch to new 3D televisions will be no small feat. According to Nielsen there are more than 300 million televisions in the US, approximately 2.4 per household. “The fact we’re expecting people to get rid of these TVs before they die is ludicrous,” Berman says, but he also thinks that the availability of compelling content will make or break 3D in the near future.
The success of Avatar has many believing in 3D’s future. “What we’ve seen with 3D releases this year, most recently with Avatar, is a reinvention of the moviegoing experience,” AMC Cinemas CEO, Gerry Lopez, recently told The Guardian, a British newspaper.
“If you look at Avatar it is at its core a retelling of Pochohantas,” said Boardman. “Savvy move on the part of Cameron to pick a story that is familiar to many so they can marvel at the extraordinary execution of the technology. Audiences buy stories, not technology.”
Boardman said audiences are willing to pay for Avatar because it was a special event that can only happen in a theater.
But while jury may be out on whether 3D will be a moneymaker or a flop, someone still has the chance to make money in the immediate term.
Curt Thornton is guarded in his optimism. The CEO of Provision, a California-based company that produces out-of-home 3D display kiosks, worked with Warner Brothers to promote the 3D version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Provision set up displays in electronics stores that showed the movie trailer without the need for glasses.
“Consumers are not walking around with 3D glasses,” Thornton said. “We can leverage our technology in every major electronic retailer and be able to communicate using our 3D platform to show the consumer difference.”
He says he believes that in two to five years, 3D will be mainstream, but not as soon as many boosters hope.
“I don’t think this is going to be a complete bust,” Thornton said. “I’m prejudiced.”