For a Direct-to-Home operator in the United States or United Kingdom, the question of whether they should launch 3D services almost seems like a no-brainer. A quick look at the recent past reveals that as subscribers have moved from standard definition to HD, DTH operators have steadily grown their ARPU numbers. Over the past decade, since the introduction of HD in these mature markets, subscribers have steadily added premium options to their subscriptions. The “idiot box” got smarter with DVRs, and picture quality went from standard to high definition taking ARPUs from $50 to $80 levels. As of the end of 2008, Premium subscribers in North America numbered nearly twice their Basic counterparts, and the recession only made more people stay at home and watch television. NSR expects these 24 million premium subscribers as of the end of 2009 to grow to about 38 million by 2018, the details of which are a part of NSR’s Global Direct-to-Home Markets, 2nd Edition report. However, NSR is in no hurry to adjust these numbers to account for 3D subscribers, and here is why…
Equipment required to bring 3D from the cinema into the living room is neither on the shelves, nor on wish lists of the general viewing public. For one, 3D without glasses (autostereoscopic) has many miles to go before it moves out of the research environment. At an entry price a few hundred dollars above high-end HDTVs (and only one pair of glasses included), the $2,500 entry barrier will deter those that aren’t in awe of the technology. The extraordinary success of an “Avatar” may have brought the power of 3D to the fore, but spending three hours in a movie theatre is a one-time entertainment experience; catching the FIFA World Cup meanwhile is more of a leisure activity. There is no doubt that the techno-savvy “early adopters” will want the latest gizmos in their living rooms, but not everyone would like to wear glasses every time they wanted to sit back and watch an NFL football game. The other, more practical hurdle is the fact that those viewers that have recently invested in HD sets would not immediately like to upgrade to 3D equipment until their content of choice is made available
Provider intentions, however, are quite clear. ESPN and Discovery have committed towards providing premium content in 3D by the end of this year. Television manufacturers such as Mitsubishi and Samsung already have “3D ready” models ready to hit the nearest Wal-Mart stores. Pay-TV providers such as DirecTV and BSkyB are confident that subscribers will transition smoothly from HD to 3D with a mere firmware upgrade (and, of course, an additional $10 per month). The MPEG Industry Forum has kicked off a 3DTV Working Group to lay down standards in this very nascent market. BSkyB has gone to the extent of announcing compatibility of its 3D technology with major television manufacturers. The message is clear: every entity in the television value-chain is keen on riding the post-recession wave. Everyone from Samsung to DirecTV is awaiting the next big sporting event to make its product and service announcements.
Investors place their faith in the same parameter that NSR has delivered time and again: the absolute numbers. At the end of 2009, there were about 339 million TV sets in the United States, more than a third of which are HDTVs largely skewed towards the LCD variety. As TV shipments flat line at the 33 million units per year mark, the prospects for a “new and improved” 3DTV set to make an entry in 2010 and sell 30 or 40 million units in five years time are a bit exaggerated. As the hype dies down, growth will be more gradual, and delayed economic recovery will push the gestation period into the latter half of the new decade.
HD has had to struggle to gain mainstream acceptance in the mature markets of North America and Western Europe. Even in its early days, all an HD viewer needed was to shell out the extra dollar for the television set once he or she knew that their HD content was available. 3D will have to overcome the “glasses” barrier, the “content” barrier as well as the slightly higher price point in an environment where few are willing to spend as easily as they were a decade ago. The impact on subscribers for DTH operators, therefore, will be realized only in the long term if these challenges are overcome.