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Demand for immediacy, convenience leads to demise of ESPN 3D, reallocation of network priorities

As a card-carrying computer geek, I’m not one to typically cheer a failure of technology.

But I must admit news this week that ESPN has pulled the plug on its 3-D channel, ESPN 3D, brought a tiny surge of joy to a busy afternoon Wednesday.

The news came days after another, unconfirmed report from The Big Lead about the Worldwide Leader in Sports hiring 32 reporters to more closely track every team in the NFL.

If true, this would represent an allocation of resources that makes more sense — trading energy and expenses thrown at a glitzy new technology for boots on the ground in a way guaranteed to warm the heart of an old school journalist.

The end of the 3-D channel, admitted in a terse email statement from ESPN  acknowledging “limited viewer adoption of 3D services to the home,” admitted what consumer experts knew soon after the channel debuted in 2010: Consumers don’t want to spend money on the technology.

That wasn’t a popular consideration when I toured ESPN’s Innovation Lab in Orlando back in 2010, getting an up close look at their work capturing events at the company’s Wide World of Sports complex for 3-D projects.

About the size of a spacious den, it was crammed with computers, video monitors and a gaggle of technicians looking over material which would later air on the then-yet-to-debut channel.

What struck me then about the footage was that little of it was truly special. Some shots were breathtaking — a football receiver nabbing a pass in a spectacular lunge, the ball seeming to appear before your face, or a golfer blasting a ball out of a sand trap, leaving you convinced the dirt particles were about to pelt your face.

But quick camera moves to capture on field action were occasionally dizzying, as your eye struggled to process the images. And the technology required to for consumers to experience 3-D — namely, clunky glasses you had to put on whenever you stood in front of the set — cut down on possibilities for group viewing and added another level of hassle.

With all these roadblocks, I’m surprised ESPN’s 3-D effort lasted long as it did, at a time when even some moviegoers balk at spending more cash to watch 3-D images splashed on a screen the size of a small apartment building.

In this media moment, what consumers crave most is immediacy, convenience, low cost and low hassle — none of which could really describe the 3-D television experiment.

Of course, ESPN still faces its own resource challenges. This move to hire a wide swath of reporters, if true, could also be part of a strategy to replace older, higher-salaried workers with staffers who cost less.

Deadspin has done a pretty good job tallying the departures at the channel after revealing the company planned to layoff hundreds. According to the blog, Gary Hoenig, a founding editor of ESPN the Magazine, and sports trivia expert Howie Schwab are among those who have been let go, with more news expected this week.

It’s an odd sight, which seems a particular artifact in our age of media conglomerates; that a company closing down a TV channel and laying off hundreds could also, in another area, hire dozens more for a different initiative.

But if the end result is more journalism practiced by real people, that might be the best thing for fans and sports journalism — provided too many key veterans don’t lose their jobs in the process.

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: To judge the ultimate impact, we’ll just have to stay tuned.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

Check out Deggans’ latest book, Race-Baiter, How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, and you can also visit his website for more information.

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