3-D: The “Avatar” of Change for TV

Cameron’s hit movie fuels 3-D television push. But will the gimmick fall flat?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, the reaction of Joe Six-pack, or better yet, Homer Simpson, upon hearing that 3-D TV is coming soon: “Mmmm, Super Bowl!”

But many of us, upon second reflection, might respond with a question along the lines of, “Do we really need to see Snooki in 3-D?”

Following the runaway (or flyaway) success of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” details emerged this week of plans for 3-D televisions and programming.

ESPN revealed it will show World Cup and basketball games in 3-D this year. Discovery Communications is working with Sony and Imax on a 3-D channel to debut in 2011, The New York Times reported. The electronics industry is expected to announce this week in Las Vegas, a town predicated on overwhelming the senses to decrease judgment, that 3-D-capable sets soon will be churned out.

We don’t profess to have many answers, but the quick-moving developments raise many questions: With LCD sets finally about the same price as comparable old-school TVs, will folks shell out big bucks for another new screen? Will viewers wear 3-D glasses at home? Is this all happening too soon after the digital TV switchover that traumatized grandmas and grandpas around the country?

Perhaps the biggest question: will “Avatar” help or hurt the 3-D TV cause?

The easy answer, with the movie quickly pulling in more than $1 billion worldwide, is that the hoopla surrounding “Avatar” will bring stampedes to the electronics stores. But there’s a possibility the 3-D TV experience will pale in comparison to the movie, with its game-changing special effects and action sequences, projected onto a huge screen that seems almost to envelope the audience.

There also may be a limit to the shows for which 3-D is a draw. The idea of being in the middle of the action in a football game while landing on nothing harder than a sofa is tantalizing – as is watching nature and adventure shows, as well as news unfold around the world. But do we need 3-D views of the many one-dimensional characters occupying the worst of the sitcoms and reality shows?

If 3-D TV catches on, we may see an unprecedented overhaul of programming to make content fit form. “The Office” is great, but 3-D probably is not going to attract more viewers, as it likely would for “24.” There’s a danger of losing quality program that doesn’t play well in more than two dimensions.

For the TV manufacturers and programmers, there’s the threat the 3-D experiment will be a bust – one that couldn’t come at a worse time. TV is losing audience to the Internet. The 3-D move could help distinguish the medium from the Web and create a demand for new sets. Or it could be a mere speed bump as more folks flock to PCs and the movies.

Meanwhile, most of us probably will get our initial peek at 3-D TV on the sets of the early adapters – the kind of folks who were the first on the block to get Betamaxes and later connected to the Internet at a time many assumed the World Wide Web was something spun by a really big spider.

The first Web browser, by the way, was created in 1990 – right around the time “The Simpsons” hit the air. Fox is following the show’s landmark 450th episode this Sunday with a documentary called, "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special in 3-D on Ice."

Maybe by the time of the 21st anniversary, the 3-D part won’t be a joke.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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