3DTV endures setbacks, but it’s still coming right at us

One maker of 3D televisions now says Internet-connected “smart TV” features are¬†a better sales hook, and gaming company Nintendo¬†just scuttled its 3D programming channel.

The Consumer Electronics Association just released data Monday suggesting that slightly less than a quarter of prospective TV buyers in the U.S. are looking to buy a 3D-capable set. And with multichannel operators looking to cut any channel they can to reduce sky-rocketing programming costs, carriage for nascent 3D channels has been tough to come by.

So is 3DTV really circling the drain? Short answer: no.

Backers of the technology concede its growth is in no way living up to the hype of early 2010, when the multi-billion box office performance of Avatar sparked all sorts of irrational exuberance about both the theatrical and home 3D markets.

But analysts in the know tell paidContent that adoption is moving ahead. “The consumers we talk to want their TVs to be smart and they want them to be 3D,” said Envisioneering consumer electronics analyst Richard Doherty. “Consumer interest is alive and well.”

But what about Samsung, which recently said consumers are much more interested in smart TV features than 3D? Doherty says the company is currently overstocked with 3DTV models requiring the older, now less popular “active” 3D glasses that require batteries. “They’re just trying to finess that situation,” Doherty said.

Rod Riegel, a spokesman for 3Net — a 24-hour 3D programming channel jointly launched by Sony, Discovery Communications and IMAX during that early 2010 period — said penetration of 3DTV sets into U.S. homes is expected to reach 15.3 million by the end of the year. By the end of 2013, Riegel and Doherty both predict adoption be at around 30 million U.S. homes, which is about a third of TV homes.

Three years into its progression, the ultimately successful HDTV format was only in 2 million homes.

For the limited number of 3D programmers, growing the installed base of sets at a healthy pace is one thing. Living up to the big early hype is another — REAL growth won’t happen until greater penetration of 3D sets occurs. And over a year after its splashy launch, 3Net remains confined to multichannel carriage on DirecTV, which won’t reveal how many of its 20 million subscribers have the 3D-capable TVs needed to access the channel.

The other big 3D channel introduced at about the same time as 3Net, Disney’s ESPN 3D, has also struggled to expand its carriage beyond a launch group of top multichannel operators that included Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-Verse — and in fact, U-Verse dropped the channel last summer citing low demand.

Its multichannel options limited are limited in the U.S., but 3Net has found over-the-top distribution to increase its reach abroad. It’s distributed in China, for example, via a deal with VOD distributor You On Demand.

Citing various research figures, Riegel estimates that there are over 22 million 3DTV homes in China right now.