ESPN and Discovery launching 3-D TV networks

LOS ANGELES/CHICAGO (Reuters) - ESPN and Discovery Communications Inc both unveiled plans on Tuesday to launch 3-D television networks, reflecting a growing momentum in the entertainment industry to usher 3-D into the home.

Walt Disney Co’s ESPN will roll out its 3-D network in June and will air a minimum of 85 live sporting events during its first year. ESPN’s first broadcast will be a World Cup soccer match between South Africa and Mexico.

Separately, Discovery said it has joined ranks with Sony Corp and IMAX Corp to launch a dedicated 3-D network in the United States beginning in 2011. The network will feature natural history, space, exploration, and adventure shows along with films and children’s programing from all three partners. Third parties may also provide entertainment.

Following the blockbuster success of 3-D epic “Avatar,” many believe 3-D is poised to take over the home market and many 3-D technologies will be on display at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

“This will be a meaningful step to drive adoption of 3-D television sets and afford opportunities for our affiliates to create value through new product offerings, and our advertisers, who want fresh sponsorship opportunities,” Sean Bratches, ESPN’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement.

A lack of 3-D programing, in particular for sports, has been one of the key barriers to adoption of 3-D TV, analysts have said. Having to wear special glasses is another.

“The bottleneck has been content. What you are seeing is a feeding frenzy suddenly emerging for in-home 3-D, which is a step in the right direction,” said Piper Jaffray analyst James Marsh.

But he noted that while theatrical 3-D success provides a beachhead for in-home solutions, the transition to widespread in-home 3-D adoption may prove more complicated due to challenges in convincing viewers it can be as enjoyable as inside the cinema.

Price also will be an issue for consumers who may have just recently upgraded their living rooms.

Richard Doherty, analyst with Envisioneering Group, believes one household in 30 may embrace 3-D in-home technology by New Year’s 2011, and up to 20 percent by 2015.

“There’s quite an effort among standards groups, broadcasters, cable and satellite operators and consumer electronics companies to get 3-D in the home quickly,” he said.

Sports, perhaps even more than movies, is a prime driver of consumer sales for screen technology, including flat-screen TVs.

Along with up to 25 World Cup matches, ESPN said 3-D would be featured in broadcasts of the Summer X Games extreme sports, college basketball and college football, including the BCS National Championship game in Glendale, Arizona, on January 10, 2011.

ESPN has been testing 3-D for more than two years and last fall produced the college football game between University of Southern California and Ohio State University in select theaters and on the USC campus.

Editing by Paul Thomasch, Andre Grenon and Steve Orlofsky