Who's watching? 3-D TV is no hit with US viewers

September 28, 2012 by Ryan Nakashima
In this Wednesday, June 27, 2012, photo, ESPN coordinating producer Phil Orlins shows a 3-D camera set up used by ESPN 3-D Network coverage at the ESPN X-Games held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Only 2 percent of TVs in American homes were able to show 3-D last year, according to IHS Screen Digest. That's about 6.9 million sets out of 331 million installed. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Phil Orlins knows everything about producing TV in three dimensions. The ESPN producer has captured the undulating greens of Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia and the flying motor bikes of the X-Games for ESPN's 3-D channel. But he can only guess how well his shows resonate with viewers. That's because 3-D audiences are so small they can't be measured by Nielsen's rating system.

"The feedback on The (golf) Masters was fast and furious. You could go on Twitter at any moment, and there'd be comments coming in every minute about 3-D coverage," said Orlins while giving a tour of a production truck at this summer's X-Games. "But then you go to some other events where it's pretty quiet."

Orlins' problem is that fewer than 115,000 American homes are tuned into 3-D channels at any one time. That's less than a hundredth of the 20.2 million-strong audience that saw television's highest-rated show "NCIS" this week. 3-D viewership is so small that The Nielsen Co.'s measurement methods are unable to capture its size.

ESPN 3D is one of nine 3-D channels that launched in the years following the late 2009 release of James Cameron's "Avatar." The 3-D blockbuster won three Oscars and ranks as the highest-grossing film of all time, garnering $2.8 billion at the global box office.

"Avatar" was supposed to change everything. Enthusiastic television executives expected the movie to spur 3-D's transition to American living rooms, boosting sales of new TVs and giving people a reason to pay more for 3-D channels.

That didn't happen.

Only 2 percent of TVs in the U.S. are able to show 3-D programming, according to the most recent data from research firm IHS Screen Digest. That's about 6.9 million sets out of 331 million. After this year's Christmas buying rush, IHS expects the number of 3-D-capable televisions installed in homes to jump to 19.3 million, mostly because 3-D viewing technology is being built into most new large-screen TVs. But even with the jump, 3-D TVs will amount to less than 6 percent of all sets.

"We've learned with every passing day that we were ahead of the curve further than we thought we were," said Bryan Burns, the business leader for ESPN 3D. "We hit the on-ramp earlier than we realized at the time."

In this Wednesday, June 27, 2012 photo, 3-D TV operator Cody Miles adjusts camera focusing settings for a 3-D production for ESPN 3-D Network at the ESPN X-Games at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Only 2 percent of TVs in American homes were able to show 3-D last year, according to IHS Screen Digest. That's about 6.9 million sets out of 331 million installed. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Why 3-D television hasn't become a national craze is a mystery to some in the industry, considering the wide acceptance of 3-D movies at theaters. But 3-D content is expensive to produce, and as a result there's not a lot of it. Some of the content isn't very good. Some people find the special glasses required for 3-D TV uncomfortable. And many wonder whether it's worth the extra cost.

"It was kind of fascinating to me, but it's not all there," said Tim Carter, a graphic designer in Sarasota, Florida, who bought a large, high-end 3-D TV with other high-end features last year for about $1,800.

Today, the average 42-inch 3-D television costs about $900, according to IHS. They contain a high-tech chip and software that translates 3-D video feeds into the right- and left-eye images that create the 3-D effect for people wearing the right glasses. In some cases, special glasses can cost an extra $50 or so.

Watching home movies on disc requires a 3-D Blu-ray player that can cost another $120 and each disc set purchase runs around $27, according to IHS. (3-D movies are usually bundled with other discs.)

While operators like DirecTV and Comcast Corp. don't charge specifically for channels like ESPN 3D, they are generally bundled in packages that require other spending. At DirecTV that means a $200 high-definition digital video recorder and $10 per month for HD service. For Comcast, that means a minimum $65-per-month digital starter package with HD service costing another $10 a month.

All that for the privilege of watching 3-D at home in your pajamas.

Due to the cost, Carter said he's mainly sampled free 3-D movie trailers provided on-demand by his cable TV company. A trailer for the latest "Transformers" movie didn't make him more enthused. "One of the robots pops out at you, and it felt forced." ''It's not consistent," he said, noting that 3-D effects aren't noticeable much of the time. He said he's not knocking the technology, he's just disappointed with the way it's being used.

Nowadays, 3-D is just one feature on TVs with bigger screens. It is usually grouped with other upgrades that include motion-smoothing technology and light-emitting diodes that are smaller, more energy efficient and display color contrast better than traditional liquid crystal display sets. It's difficult to isolate how much 3-D adds to the price tag of an individual set because of this bundling, but according to IHS the average 42-inch set with 3-D is about $200 more than a similar-sized one without. Some 3-D TVs, however, can be found for cheaper than others of the same size.

"There's very little direct consumer demand," said Tom Morrod, a TV technology analyst with IHS in London. Some consumers buy TVs which happen to have 3-D, but they don't bother to get the glasses needed to watch them, he said.

"They don't see a value with it. Consumers associate value right now with screen size and very few other features."

Sluggish demand for 3-D on TV has caused programmers to hit pause on rolling out new shows and channels.

In June, DirecTV turned its 24-hour channel, n3D, into a part-time network that only shows special event programming like the Olympics, in part to avoid the heavy use of reruns caused by a lack of new material. Last year, AT&T dropped ESPN 3D from its lineup, saying the $10 per month cost to subscribers wasn't justified given low demand.

So far, ESPN 3D is the most aggressive network in terms of shooting original 3-D productions. It has about 140 per year. It also has the widest distribution, according to research firm SNL Kagan, no doubt because popular sports network ESPN includes it in negotiations with distributors. Though few own the hardware to watch the channel, ESPN 3D now pipes into 60 million U.S. homes.

In this Wednesday, June 27, 2012 photo, an unidentified 3-D TV operator checks camera settings for a 3-D production for ESPN 3-D Network at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Only 2 percent of TVs in American homes were able to show 3-D last year, according to IHS Screen Digest. That's about 6.9 million sets out of 331 million installed. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Without extra subscriber fees, it could be difficult to make a big business out of 3-D production, especially because it's more expensive than 2-D. Every 3-D camera set-up requires two cameras. They have to be mounted on a special computerized rig that aligns them. And someone in a back room has to adjust a knob that determines how cross-eyed the lenses are. That can require twice the manpower for the same camera position, boosting costs when revenues aren't going up very much.

Advertising, the other pillar of the TV channel business, is also hampered because of the lack of audience data.

That has resulted in an odd arrangement. Companies that run advertisements on ESPN 3D, like movie studios, actually have their ads played a second time in 2-D on ESPN and other channels so they can meet their goal of reaching a measurable number of people, Burns said. That uses up 2-D commercial airtime that might have been sold to other customers.

While he wouldn't say if it's profitable, Burns said ESPN 3D is still a revenue-generating business that is "doing well," because of how the network accounts for revenue from distributors and advertisers.

3-D TV is not a complete bust. Burns and others expect that as more TVs are sold with the capability, the more viewership will grow, just like it did for high-definition sets and programs a few years ago.

"It took five years before reporting systems caught up and we knew who actually had the service," Burns said of the launch of HD. "It's not unfamiliar territory to us. We've been down this road before."

For TV signal providers, carrying 3-D channels before they really become mainstream wins them points with their savviest technophile customers, the kind who jumped on the HD bandwagon early —a decade ago.

In many ways, though, the comparison to HD isn't a good one.

Watching 3-D is a problem for about 6 percent of Americans with certain eye problems, according to Dr. Dominick Maino, a professor with the Illinois College of Optometry. They simply can't see in 3-D or suffer dizziness or nausea when watching.

And it won't get the same push that HD got by the hundreds of TV stations that switched to high-definition broadcasts in the last few years. Nor will it benefit from the nation's switch from analog to digital TV broadcasts in 2009.

Another awkward point: some people just don't like 3-D. In a phone survey last November of 1,300 Americans who had seen 3-D TV, Leichtman Research Group found that 38 percent rated it poorly at 3 or below on a scale of 10. That's twice as many as rated it excellently, at 8 or higher.

That's a knock against 3-D that HD didn't have.

"It's one of those examples where seeing isn't believing, thus far," said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research. "That's certainly not a great place to start."

Explore further: ESPN, Discovery push third dimension for TV


Related Stories

3-D TV sets still viewed skeptically by many

October 7, 2010

While most TV buyers are still reluctant to dip into 3-D, David Cullers took the plunge in April, spending about $3,000 for a 55-inch Samsung LED LCD, with a 3-D Blu-ray player.

China test-launches 3D TV channel

January 2, 2012

China's state broadcaster has test-launched a 3D television channel, state media said, in a bid to draw viewers and drive consumption by encouraging people to upgrade to 3D-capable sets.

3D gets close enough to touch

January 6, 2010

The flat, familiar, two-dimensional television image at the center of your home theater is about to take on the lifelike illusion of depth. At least that's the way the future looks through the spectacles of Hollywood studios, ...

TV makers ready to test depths of market for 3-D

January 7, 2010

(AP) -- This is supposedly the year 3-D television becomes the hot new thing: Updated sets and disc players are coming out, and 3-D cable channels are in the works. But it's not clear the idea will reach out and grab mainstream ...

Recommended for you

Volvo to supply Uber with self-driving cars (Update)

November 20, 2017

Swedish carmaker Volvo Cars said Monday it has signed an agreement to supply "tens of thousands" of self-driving cars to Uber, as the ride-sharing company battles a number of different controversies.

New method analyzes corn kernel characteristics

November 17, 2017

An ear of corn averages about 800 kernels. A traditional field method to estimate the number of kernels on the ear is to manually count the number of rows and multiply by the number of kernels in one length of the ear. With ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 28, 2012
3d TV isn't a hit?

Ahahahahahaha..... No surprise there.

What's the next TV Fad? SmellOVision?
not rated yet Sep 28, 2012
I bought a bluray drive for my computer it supports 3d play back. I just cannot go out and afford a brand new 1500 or more tv. So yeah i can see why it isn't the greatest thing in the world.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2012
3D TV won't by acceptable until there is a resolution in the z-plane. Right now depth resolution is lower than NTSC resolution which is to say , it's crap....
5 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2012
IMHO, while it did add to the cost of tickets, 3-D added almost nothing to the experience of Avatar.

"Why 3-D television hasn't become a national craze is a mystery to some in the industry, considering the wide acceptance of 3-D movies at theaters."

I find it quite interesting that some industry people can be so clueless. To me, 3D is a gimmick to get the consumer to pay more at theaters and to buy yet another TV after having spent possibly thousands to upgrade to HD. It seems that industry execs think consumers are endless pockets of money. Perhaps they too are out of touch with reality.

I would also argue that 3D is not all that big of a hit at the box office. I've seen 3D movies based on the recommendation that it adds something to the experience; in only one case could I reasonably conclude that that assessment was correct - "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." In the rare other cases, my humble opinion is that it added nothing.

When the Avatar sequels come out, I'll skip 3D screenings.
not rated yet Sep 28, 2012
3D tele hurts my eyes... so i don't bother with it.
4 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2012
We need to go 4K at 80 fps or so before we go 3d. Not only do those steps do far more for realism, they're necessary for implementing 3d in a way that's engaging and doesn't induce headaches.
5 / 5 (4) Sep 28, 2012
Television? Is that the thing that's like a scaled-down YouTube where you can only choose from 500 videos at any given time, and 99% of it is junk that isn't even worth posting to YouTube?
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2012
The trouble for me is that whenever I look at a 3D image either on TV or at a movie, I can clearly see the screen flickering. It's incredibly annoying. They really need to at least double the frame rate, or I'll never be able to watch it comfortably.

Of course, the other problem for 3D TV is that it really isn't a new experience. When we watch normal TV, our brain looks at the image and extrapolates the depth automatically. You don't look at a normal TV and see a flat screen. So 3D TV really isn't needed - we've essentially had it all along.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2012
When they come out with an affordable 3D table top display where you can walk around and see the scene from any angle is when I'll be interested in getting one. Companies are still a long way away from being able to make that type of system affordable to the average consumer. Until that happens I don't really think 3D will ever take over from regular 2D entertainment displays. It's going to a slow switch even when the equipment does become available and will probably take a generation of people to happen.
not rated yet Sep 29, 2012
Are they are searching for a single predominate reason? It's more likely the product of a bunch of smaller contributing factors, many of which they already are aware.
We're living in a post-technology era, television-wise. I can carry all my music around with me on something small enough to lose easily. I can talk, send pictures, videos, etc. from anywhere in the world. I can get directions electronically and never be lost, and I'm on the verge of having a car that drives itself.

But TV is still just TV, with some weak enhancements. 3-D doesn't do it for me. Nor will UHDTV (so don't bother - there, I've saved you some R&D money).

Consumers want revolution, not evolution. Give me a holo-deck and I'll get excited.

5 / 5 (1) Sep 29, 2012
With 3D, if there is a man speaking in the foreground, presumably selected by technicians as the z axis focus, and pretty girl in shot at a deeper z, where am I looking?
Even if I just glance away from the director's chosen focus of attention for the candy I have to put up with artifacts.

1 / 5 (4) Sep 30, 2012
It's quadrophonic audio (1970s) all over again. That was meant to take over from stereo and it failed miserably. Why these marketing types think that everyone will just throw out their 2D panels and get a 3D one is ridiculous. Particularly since television these days is hardly worth watching. Content is generally a load of shit.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 30, 2012
There's a video circulating about a dog watching himself on a laptop computer. If a dog doesn't need 3D to comprehension, then what is wrong with 2D? Capitalism dictates that those with wealth should extract a profit from same. Ecosystems conversely seem to acknowledge when a system is "good enough" before driving into overkill.
not rated yet Oct 01, 2012
Particularly since television these days is hardly worth watching. Content is generally a load of shit.

Well, it's not the the content that is generating the revenues, now, is it? 'Content' is just a substance that is used to dupe people into watching ads. As with any other no-profit part of an enterprise the content is generated as cheaply as possible.

3D must have seemed like a good idea to the execs: Next to no additional cost for the content, but big 'wow'-factor for the consumer (i.e. more poeple watching ads).

What they failed to realize is that the 'wow'-factor of 3D wears off rather quickly (as it adds not nearly as much as sound or color did).

3D will come into its own when we start to use it for viewing/processing internet-information on a rgular basis. But TV (and maybe even the movies) has had its day.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.