3-D Is Nice, But Who’s Going to Pay For It?

Someday, and maybe even someday soon, we’ll be watching the Super Bowl in 3-D — that is, if the consumer electronics and cable industries get their way. With 3D-TVs finally entering the marketplace and cable networks creating dedicated 3-D channels, it seems like just a matter of time before we begin watching mainstream TV programming with 3-D glasses on. I got a little glimpse of that future on Wednesday as I joined 2,600 hockey fans in the Theater at Madison Square Garden for Cablevision’s MSG’s live broadcast of the National Hockey League matchup between the NY Rangers and the NY Islanders, which was carried by Cablevision (s CVC) across its entire service area.

Cablevision’s MSG’s 3-D broadcast of the game marked a sports TV first, albeit with an exclusive audience, at least when it comes to people enjoying the matchup at home. 3D-TV sets have only been available for a few weeks, and complete set-ups currently cost $3,000 or more. With such hefty price tags, most people are likely watching the trend from the sideline, wondering: Is 3-D worth it? The answer, based on my limited experience earlier this week, is that it depends.

If, like me, you’re watching a hockey game in 3-D, and you’re not in any way shape or form an enthusiastic hockey fan, but you’re having a beer on Cablevision’s MSG’s tab and conversing with other like-minded, disinterested journalists — in other words, if you’re left to enjoy the setup without having to worry about the cost — then absolutely, seeing the Rangers blow out their local rivals in 3-D is not a bad way to spend a Wednesday night.

But if you’re the one paying for the thing — which would include investing thousands of dollars in a new compatible TV, peripherals and the like, to get the full 3-D experience (not to mention buying your own sets of those funky polarized lenses) to catch a once-in-a-blue-moon sports broadcast in 3-D — then no, I wouldn’t rush out to buy a 3DTV yet.

The good news is that 3-D as a television viewing experience is an improvement over HD viewing, and not a wholly incremental difference, either. In the 3-D media lounge, Cablevision MSG had kindly set up an HD feed of the game right next to its 3D-TVs so that we could judge for ourselves which was the better experience. For a game like hockey, which is mostly shot from above, with a stark white background and players in close proximity to one another, most of the action isn’t that much better in 3-D than in HD.

But where the new technology really excels is during faceoffs, where the 3-D shot provides some closeup perspective of where the players are in relation to one another and the puck. Also in shots from the corners of the rink, where you can see players attempt to ram each other (somewhat frighteningly) into the boards in direct view of the camera.

One person I was speaking with at the event questioned Cablevision’s MSG’s motivations for the 3-D feed, other than to show off and be first to use the technology. Why invest so much in 3-D cameras, the personnel to shoot, edit, and produce the event, and a second dedicated feed for broadcast of a game that few people will see when there’s no way to monetize it? That’s a good question. As a showcase, the 3-D feed ran without ads, though one has to wonder how much 3-D ad creative there is in the world, or if marketers even think it’s worth creating, given the small home audience that actually has access to the technology.

As a hero project, Cablevision’s MSG’s 3-D broadcast of this week’s Rangers game went pretty flawlessly, right down to its team jumping ahead of the Islanders by a score of 3-0 in the first 12 minutes of the game, then holding and extending that lead to finally win by a score of 5-0. But when actual business considerations come into play, the value of 3-D becomes a little more dicey. Who pays for it? How do you monetize it? Is the audience there to support it? These are questions Cablevision, and other distributors, will have to think long and hard about before they implement 3-D on a wider scale.

Related content on GigaOM Pro:

Are We Putting the 3-D Cart Before the Horse?