Not sure I want my 3D TV, yet

Old joke: A chicken and egg are having sex. The chicken climaxes, rolls over, lights a cigarette and says, “Well I guess that settles that.”

chicken-egg-bed-came-firstPoint taken, at least as far as poultry is concerned. But it still takes both partners to get to the punchline. What about cases where you lack a partner?

I’m thinking, naturally, of 3D TV, which is rapidly emerging as the last, best hope of the consumer electronics industry. With the bottom all-but out of flat-panel display prices, major set makers are placing big bets on 3D technology heading into next month’s CES in Las Vegas. On Thursday, Sony inked a pact with RealD to license its 3D eyewear technology, and it, along with Panasonic, Samsung and LG will be showing off new 3D TV sets in their booths at the show.

Earlier in the week, the Blu-ray Disc Assn. finalized the technical spec for Blu-ray 3D, which also, no doubt, will make an appearance at CES.

The timing of all this 3D activity is in some measure fortuitous. CES will be opening on the heels of James Cameron’s $350 million 3D extravaganza, “Avatar,” which many 3D boosters in the CE industry will do for consumer interest in the process what “The Jazz Singer” did for talkies (both the movie and the 3D effects are drawing raves). Assuming it’s indeed a huge hit, “Avatar” will probably be released on Blu-ray sometime in 2011, just in time for the expected roll out of 3D-capable players (PlayStation 3 consoles can be made 3D capable sooner with a firmware upgrade).

But then what? Where’s the other compelling content that will drive consumers to adopt the new technology, especially after most of them just went through an upgrade cycle in adopting HD?

I understand electronics makers’ need to innovate and bring new products to market. But I wonder if they’re not getting a bit ahead of the 3D curve. Remember the long standoff between TV makers and broadcasters over the date for the analog cut off and whether set makers or programmers should go first in making 3D product availabl3d_tve? And that was with Congress and the FCC mandating the switch over.

Certainly, the major studios will continue to churn out 3D movies over the next several years, particularly animated films. But will a handful of 3D movies a year really drive the adoption of a new TV technology? Even if the studios adopted 3D across the board, moreover, movie output is dropping over all.

As for 3D TV programming, I’m not sure I see the economics, except perhaps for certain sports content for which broadcasters have already paid big bucks for the rights. In most cases, 3D production means an incremental cost at a time when networks are looking to invest less in programming. Programmers’ biggest challenges at the moment are on the distribution and revenue sides of their business, not the programming side. Where’s the economic logic in spending more money to produce reality shows in 3D?

As for broadcasters, they just spent a bundle to upgrade to HD. How anxious are they going to be to spring for another upgrade, even a small one, when profits are already under pressure?

From the hardware perspective, 3D may be a cool technology. I’m just not sure it’s particularly well aligned with the realities of the programming business at the moment apart from a handful of major-studio theatrical releases. And as any chicken will tell you, you don’t want to go off half-cocked.

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