With ESPN Calling It Quits, the Writing Is on the Wall for 3D

With ESPN Calling It Quits, the Writing Is on the Wall for 3D
Esteban Nichol (left) and Jonathan Alcantara spar live in the boxing ring in the ESPN 3D section at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center January 12, 2012 in Las Vegas
Photograph by Bryan Steffy/WireImage via Getty Images

Nails are being banged into the coffin for 3D television. On Wednesday, Disney said it would discontinue its 3D channel by the end of this year. Television manufacturers always saw sports programming as the way to persuade people about 3D, just as adoption of HDTV was driven largely by NFL fans. The fans weren’t persuaded. Three years into ESPN’s 3D push, the company said the whole thing wasn’t worth the effort.

3D has always been a technology that television manufacturers wanted to sell a lot more than anyone wanted to buy. For the last several years, 3D televisions have been trumpeted as the future at such events as the Consumer Electronics Show. But even with all the energy the industry could muster, only 20 percent of LCD televisions sold had 3D capability. Even this is probably an overstatement of how much interest there is in the technology, because it sure looks like a lot of people who buy those televisions never put on those glasses.

ESPN says it’s open to giving it another go if 3D suddenly catches on. Don’t hold your breath. Still, the television industry keeps searching for some newfangled technology that will make customers decide their perfectly good flatscreen televisions are inadequate. Without some fundamental improvement, there are a diminishing number of ways to drive new sales in the saturated television market. Over the past few years, manufacturers have been trying to drum up interest in smart televisions. People do seem genuinely interested in using the Internet to watch television, and many new TVs are now sold with Internet connections. But we don’t necessarily need new televisions to take advantage of this desire. There are other ways to stream content from the Internet onto a flat screen, and television companies face tough competition from Apple TV, the Xbox, and various streaming devices from smaller companies that are offering user experiences arguably better than smart televisions.

Another glimmer of hope: ultra-high-definition television, also known as 4K television. It’s just what it sounds like: high-def, only more so. Unlike 3D or smart TV, 4K requires very little of couch potatoes; they’ll watch the new televisions in exactly the same way they watch their old ones. The technology isn’t very noticeable except on really big televisions, which are expensive—thus the format’s appeal to manufacturers that would like to upsell you on a 60-incher. But 4K faces the same chicken-and-egg problem as 3D; you can’t persuade people to trade up without offering them compelling content. ESPN says it’s experimenting with 4K. That’s good, because without the network, it’ll become the latest overhyped technology to wither away without anyone noticing.

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