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BBC abandons 3D TV, cites 'disappointing' results

Hypegasm collides with reality

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The BBC will suspend its 3D TV transmissions indefinitely, citing poor demand among viewers – its last hurrah will be a Dr. Who anniversary special in November.

"I have never seen a very big appetite for 3D television in the UK," said Kim Shillinglaw, the BBC's head of 3D. "After that we will see what happens when the recession ends and there may be more take up of sets, but I think the BBC will be having a wait-and-see. It's the right time for a good old pause."

She said that around half of the estimated 1.5 million 3D TV owners in the UK turned on the BBC's 3D coverage of the Olympics, but only 5 per cent of viewers bothered to watch the Queen's Christmas message to the Commonwealth, figures Shillinglaw called "disappointing." Given Her Majesty's customary scowl during such coverage, the 5 per cent figure is understandable.

The BBC started broadcasting in 3D in 2011, showing the Wimbledon tennis tournament finals as part of a partnership with Sony. Since then it has taken a softly, softly approach to the technology to see if it takes off, and now evidently feels it's not worth the effort, although Shillinglaw was at least diplomatic about it.

"I am not sure our job is to call the whole 3D race," she said.

The BBC isn't the only one pulling out of 3D TV. American sports network ESPN confirmed last month that it is shutting down its dedicated 3D TV, citing weak consumer demand. It's all very different from three years ago, when the 3D hypegasm was climaxing.

In retrospect, 3D predictions look rather silly

Back to the heady days of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, the world's content providers and hardware builders were assuring all and sundry that 3D was the way forward. James Cameron's 3D epic Dances with Smurfs Avatar was breaking box office records, and the industry was all a-flutter about the possibilities for 3D's future.

At Sony's press conference, attendees were handed 3D glasses at the door and the session was opened by a 3D Jimi Hendrix, no doubt rotating in his grave at 45rpm at the thought. The then-CEO Sir Harold Stringer told us that 3D was going to be the most important technological change to TV since the shift to color, and after exchanging a rather creepy conversation with American songstress Taylor Swift, declared content partnerships with ESPN and the Discovery channel.

Sony wasn't alone – pretty much every consumer-electronics company seemed to have a 3D product of some kind at the show, and there were lofty predictions about how the technology would be in every home and cinema before long. Sports bars would be full of spectacle wearing punters living the on-screen action, Stringer said, and manufacturers were hoping for an upgrade orgy that would fill corporate coffers.

As it turns, out the response from the buying public was largely "meh." Few buyers were interested in spending money on the technology, the glasses are unpopular and expensive, and most 3D TV hardware was limited to the very large and expensive units that only addicts would consider stumping up for.

As for content, the success of Avatar was followed by a succession of dire 3D movies such as Mars Needs Moms and Piranha 3D, proving that Cameron's epic was the exception that proved the rule. 3D can work in film – take Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Life of Pi as an example – but cinema-goers are still somewhat put off by having to wear the eyewear needed and the high ticket prices.

The situation is even worse in the home. While there are some dedicated 3D channels (smut-mongers Penthouse 3D is still in business), consumers who are upgrading their televisions are more likely to pick a "smart TV" with an internet connection rather than 3D TV with a pair of dorky glasses.

"I think when people watch TV they concentrate in a different way," the BBC's Shillinglaw said. "When people go to the cinema they go and are used to doing one thing – I think that's one of the reasons that take up of 3D TV has been disappointing."

With the closure of the BBC service it looks likely that 3D will remain a niche thing, for those who really, really want the content. As for Shillinglaw, she'll go back to her day job as head of science and natural history at the BBC once the 3D unit is shut down – probably with a huge sigh of relief. ®

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