Networks tout 3-D episodes of prime-time shows

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Forget the May sweeps war between the major TV networks' big-ticket miniseries. The real battle is brewing in the third dimension.

As a result, viewers might get lost in the 3-D shuffle.

ABC and NBC said it's a coincidence that they both have scheduled major 3-D promotions for this sweeps. Of course, both networks also claim their 3-D campaigns boast the better technology and on-screen presentation.

ABC plans to air 3-D segments on nine of its shows this week, including "Home Improvement," "Spin City," "The Drew Carey Show," "Coach," "Ellen," "Step by Step," "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "Family Matters."

15 MINUTES OF EFFECTS

NBC, meanwhile, has an ambitious "3rd Rock From the Sun" episode in the works for May 18 that includes 15 minutes of 3-D effects.

ABC is passing out more than 20 million glasses via Wendy's International fast-food restaurants, while NBC will place about 18 million glasses on Barq's root beer packages and in Little Caesars Pizza stores.

Neither network's technology is compatible with the other's, meaning confused viewers who wear NBC's glasses for ABC's shows, and vice versa, won't see any special effects.

To make matters more confusing, both ABC and NBC have enlisted the services of the same company, Dimension 3, to create the 3-D technologies and manufacture the glasses.

"It's the Civil War and I'm playing both North and South," said Dan Symmes, president of Dimension 3.

Mr. Symmes said TV producer Carsey-Werner actually contacted him first, last summer, about doing a "3rd Rock" episode in 3-D for the November sweeps. But "3rd Rock" couldn't find a sponsor for the glasses in time, and the plan was pushed back.

Last fall, ABC and NBC both contacted Mr. Symmes at about the same time and inquired about doing a 3-D project for May.

Mr. Symmes said that 3-D technology has greatly advanced in recent years, making 3-D on TV cleaner and more cost-efficient. Without any push from Mr. Symmes, ABC and NBC decided on the different technologies.

"In my mind, it would have been better to have one [kind of] glasses on the market rather than two," he said. "The public's going to be a little confused."

ABC MORE TRADITIONAL

ABC is using the more traditional "stereoscopic" method, where the 3-D glasses are blue on one side and red on the other. This will allow for the illusion that objects have been thrown out of the TV and into the viewer's lap. But viewers without glasses will notice a fuzzy red and blue image.

"We're very conscious about that," said Alan Cohen, ABC's exec VP of marketing. "We were careful to craft it so it's not going to cause anyone to go for their remote."

NBC's technology, meanwhile, is less like the traditional 3-D, but relies more on depth perception. The producers of "3rd Rock" have spent $1.3 million on the episode, which includes four major "dream sequence" production numbers that the show filmed on two large soundstages over the course of nine days.

The "3rd Rock" technology requires continual movement by the camera so that the brain is tricked into seeing multiple planes, giving a sense of 3-D on screen.

Unlike ABC's technology, NBC's 3-D effects will appear normal to viewers without the special glasses.

"We're drawing you into the television rather than throwing things out of it," said Bonnie Turner, executive producer of "3rd Rock." "We didn't believe you could do `Captain Eo' in your living room."

FOCUS ON MINISERIES

Both networks are also focusing their marketing muscle on their major miniseries. ABC heavily promoted last week's "The Shining" and has tied in with the rock group U2 for its promotional tagline, "ABC is pop."

CBS, meanwhile, has placed most of its marketing efforts around its miniseries "The Last Don."

"We stayed out of the gimmick wars this May," said George Schweitzer, CBS exec VP-marketing and communications. "I don't think 3-D alone gets you much, but 3-D in connection with compelling programming might have more of a chance."

Mr. Schneider is a reporter for Electronic Media.

Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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