It's the NFL, live in 3-D

Experiment tonight could pave the way for home broadcasts

December 04, 2008|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,bill.ordine@baltsun.com

Someday soon, that long pass downfield by Joe Flacco will appear so close that you might be tempted to reach for it from your easy chair. Or the pass rusher swarming the Ravens quarterback will seem so real that you'll be ducking along with Flacco.

That kind of visceral, "you are there" fan experience is the promise of three-dimensional broadcasting of sporting events, a promise that might begin to see fruition tonight when the Oakland Raiders play the Chargers in San Diego.

For the first time, an NFL game will be broadcast live in 3-D, and that version will be shown to invited audiences in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Eight digital 3-D cameras will capture the action, and the signal will be transmitted to theaters where the game will be shown on 3-D enabled movie screens and similarly equipped big-screen monitors.

While details have not been released, 3-D industry executives say tickets for such a live telecast would be more expensive than a typical movie theater admission but would cost less than attending the game.

The conventional game telecast will be carried on the NFL Network.

General audiences will get to see live 3-D football next month when Fox broadcasts the Bowl Championship Series game, David Hill, the chairman of Fox Sports, said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, tonight's 3-D broadcast could be a landmark in sports television history - such as ABC's first Monday night prime-time football game - and pave the way for home 3-D telecasts on enabled TVs, or it could simply wind up a curious footnote.

"This is a proof of concept [event], and we simply want to see what it looks like," said Howard Katz, the NFL's senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. "I'm not sure where it takes us."

Former Ravens President David Modell, chairman of 3ality Digital, the Burbank, Calif.-based company putting together the broadcast, is confident about 3-D's potential as a vehicle for events such as pro football.

"We've all seen those great NFL Films images where the ball spins in super slow-mo and the receiver reaches for it and falls into the end zone," said Modell, the son of Ravens minority owner Art Modell. "Now imagine you're reaching with the receiver and falling into the end zone with him. People won't want to leave the theater when it's over. They'll want to see it again."

Obviously, 3-D has been a familiar concept for more than 50 years, with movies such as House of Wax sending knives and the like hurtling toward audiences wearing funny cardboard eyeglasses. But the experience often left viewers with headaches.

"That 3-D was uncomfortable, and they had to keep you entertained with special effects and gimmicks," said 3ality CEO Sandy Climan. "With this 3-D, you fall into it. The experience is immersive. It blows people out of their seats."

Tonight's experiment is the culmination of five years of talks between the NFL and company executives. Katz said he was first approached by Modell's brother, John Modell, about an IMAX 3-D football movie about five years ago. That didn't happen, but the door-opener for tonight's telecast was a 3-D segment shot at the Super Bowl in February 2004 between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers. That was followed by 3ality's feature-length concert film U2 3D.

In each case, those were films. Tonight's game, though, is a live broadcast, and with it comes the challenge of capturing a spontaneous event and allowing the audience to see it "as they see everything else in their lives," as David Modell put it.

However, there are more challenges to the eventual success of 3-D than simply capturing compelling images. If such events are shown in theaters as pay per view, the theater has to be converted from film to digital and then be enabled for 3-D. If the event is to be viewed on television, the TV must be 3-D enabled. In all cases, viewers have to wear special glasses.

Modell and Climan said that theater conversion is happening quickly and that 3-D televisions, a novelty now, will become more common next year.

The soonest that the public might see the marriage of the NFL and 3-D could be a movie presentation of the Super Bowl in February 2010. If the film is produced, its debut might coincide with the opening of the 2010 regular season.

"The question is not if but when [3-D] is accepted as a genre," said the NFL's Katz. "Sports have driven high-definition TV, and now there are people who won't even watch a sports event on [standard definition]. I think 3-D will do the same thing but to a higher degree."

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