The news that Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special would be broadcast in 3D should, given my interest in 3D media and my long-term fandom of the Doctor and his TARDIS, be the final tipping point that pushes me over the edge into investing in a new 3D TV. Yet the announcement, like most recent PR around televised 3D, actually had the opposite effect and is pushing me towards a position that the technology and the medium are better apart than together.
Since the unveiling of 3D TV in Britain, the content has remained notably limited: BSkyB's dedicated 3D channel, Sky 3D, and the BBC's 3D broadcast of aspects of Wimbledon 2012 and Olympics 2012 revealed the dominance of sports as a televised genre made spectacular by this new technology. Throw in a limited range of live performance events (Keane or Kylie in concert), a series of 3D documentaries (David Attenborough's Flying Monsters (Sky 2010), Kingdom of Plants (Sky 2011), Trevor MacDonald's Queen and Country, Sky 2012), some light entertainment specials (Got to Dance final, Sky 2011), and a diet of stereoscopic Hollywood films, and the 3D line-up remains thin. There is an almost complete absence of drama or comedy (Sky's Little Crackers is the main entry here), with Sky readily admitting that their focus is movies, sports, factual, natural history, and children's programming (Casey 2012), not fiction.
As David Attenborough has identified, the current attitude around 3D is that it is best saved for 'event TV' like football and 'programmes that really mean something' (quoted in Singh 2010, 7). But, like the Doctor Who announcement - a prime example of event TV - that seems to ignore one of the key ways people use and watch television: seriality. Event television (the Olympics opening ceremony, the final of The X-Factor) may get high audience ratings but the bulk of television is not an event, it is a habit: a daily or weekly occurrence, and a desire for continued plural (not singular) pleasures. Time-shifting has, arguably, freed some programmes from the 'flow' of a set schedule, but digital services like Sky+ or the BBC iPlayer still contain within them the notion of seriality through series linking, and 7-day availability. Doctor Who is a strong example of a show that benefits from such time-shifted viewing, often adding several million viewers to its 'live' tally.
The current focus on 3D event television does not appear to be a long-term sustainable broadcasting model or one that offers audience a reason to invest in new technology. It may not be possible to film and broadcast everything stereoscopically, but something more than the one-off special approach currently adopted seems necessary here. For a cautionary tale about 3D event television, there is no need to look further than the BBC's last major attempt to bring 3D to television screens, a series of 1993 specials that culminated in a Doctor Who 30th anniversary special 'Dimensions in Time'. This 15-minute show, broadcast in two segments during Children in Need and Noel's House Party, was built on traditional anniversary show lines (showcasing numerous incarnations of the Doctor, his companions, and enemies) but this time shown in three dimensions (through a 3D process known as Nuoptix that gave the illusion of depth in certain scenes). The quality of the show aside (often referred to as the nadir of the original run of Doctor Who), the addition of 3D made this event into a gimmick, not a regular and intrinsic part of the TV schedule. Given 3D cinema has been tarnished and diminished through the use of words like 'gimmick' and 'novelty'(Johnston 2012), this seems a curious path to follow.
Twenty years on, the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special also arrives in a 3D version, although it is likely that the bulk of viewers will see it in 2D (another perennial problem for 3D television: the need to not push the boundaries of the technology too far, because it also needs to be broadcast on normal 'flat' screens). The BBC has, as yet, not specified how the 3D broadcast will work, beyond stating it would utilise "some of the BBC HD's capacity" (an anaglyph broadcast is unlikely in this age of digital 3D, so the assumption is that it will only be viewable for those who have already bought 3D TV sets.
But that simply brings me back to my initial point: as much as I love Doctor Who, and as fascinated as I am by the possibility of 3D television (and other media), a one-off event (or even a series of unconnected events) is not a strong enough reason to commit to a technology that cannot currently contribute to the medium's serial nature.
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston