Inside the game: Wimbledon in 3D on the BBC

Pay-TV has led the charge into stereo 3D sports broadcasting, but with next week’s TX of the last three games from the Wimbledon Championships, the BBC joins the fray. Andy Stout talks to the Corporation’s Head of HD & 3D, Danielle Nagler, about transmitting tennis in 3D and what it means for the BBC’s future 3D strategy.

One thing that swiftly becomes obvious from talking to anyone at the BBC about the 3D TX of the men’s semis and men’s and ladies’ finals is that it’s very much an experiment. Conscious of its duty as a publicly funded body that has to provide demonstrable value to the licence payers of the United Kingdom, the BBC is proceeding with anything 3D with extreme caution.

“All parties felt that for a first year, a first attempt, it made sense to focus on a small part of the Championship,” says Danielle Nagler, the BBC’s Head of HD & 3D. “This is very much an experiment for everyone involved, and, depending on what we get back from audience, we’ll see how it goes on from here.

“It’s a three year deal as far as Sony and the AELTC are concerned, but from our point of view this is an experiment for this year,” she continues. “Obviously we have a long-standing UK rights deal with Wimbledon, but that’s not explicitly about 3D. We’ll look at it. We’ll look at the project as a whole when it’s completed, as I’m sure Sony and the All England Club will, and then consider how, and if, the BBC is involved [in 3D] again next year.

The BBC has upped the resolution of its HD channels from 1440 to 1920 for the duration of the trial, and part of the testing is to ensure that the 3D TX is successful across a number of platforms. And how will it judge that success?

“There are two key areas,” she explains. “One is did it all work – did the transmission get to all the platforms and, objectively, did it look good. The second test is what did the audience think about it? Was it good bad or indifferent? Did 3D enhance their experience of Wimbledon? From that we hope to get insight that we can carry forward to how we approach 3D in the future, and getting that insight is a major part of the trials for us.”

Viewing figures for 3D remain so vanishingly small that counting them reliably at the moment is akin to the Large Hadron Collider trying to find Higg’s Boson (you suspect something’s there, you just can’t measure it), so qualitative feedback understandably is seen as more important than quantitative. The Corporation is running a few screenings where it will assess audience feedback in detail, mindful all the time that its remit is to broadcast to the mainstream audience in the UK.

“That’s what we focus on doing,” says Nagler. “That said, we also have a responsibility to look at what’s coming up in television technology and to explore where that’s going. We did that with HD, and in my view we played a big part in making sure that HD is becoming part of the next generation of television offered to viewers in the UK – it’s not a subscription only offer, it’s available to everyone.

“With 3D it’s not yet clear where that’s going, so at the moment we’re doing a series of one-off experiments to inform us of the long-term future of 3D and the BBC. That’s not making any judgement on the conclusions other broadcasters might reach. From our point of view we invest resources on behalf of the majority of viewers in the UK and, also from our point of view, it’s not yet clear whether 3D should be part of that future or not.”

Indeed, the BBC has its fingers in a lot of potential future pies, witness its recent testing of live Super Hi-Vision broadcasts with NHK. Bust such is the present febrile atmosphere surrounding all things 3D, its difficult to truly see Wimbledon 2011 as a one-off experiment that doesn’t at least give some sort of clue to the Corporation’s possible 3D coverage of London 2012.

“Whether or not there is any 3D coverage from the Olympics is not down to the BBC but down to to Olympic Broadcast Services,” she says. “As the UK rights holder, if 3D coverage was to be made available by them we’d look very carefully as to how it would be made available, taking into account how many people will be able to access 3D in their homes by next summer and what trade-offs there might be with other formats we may offer. But at the moment no decision has been taken. It’s not entirely clear what may be available so we’ll keep on looking at it.”


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