Sky has broadcast the first live 3D TV sports event to a public audience, in preparation for the launch of a dedicated Sky 3D channel in April. There are now over 2 million Sky high-definition subscribers in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Sky plans to provide the 3D capable Sky+ HD box as standard to all new and upgrading customers and is introducing an optional premium product with a terabyte of storage. Sky is set to exceed its target of 10 million subscribers by this year and continues to set the pace of innovation.

The Premier League football match between Arsenal and Manchester United kicked off the first live stereoscopic transmission, produced in parallel with the conventional coverage. Eight camera positions were used, far fewer than is now normal, supported by a dedicated commentary and production team and a purpose-built outside broadcast truck.

Commentator Alan Parry described it as “a moment of television history”. He said “I’m sure it will revolutionise the way we watch live sports.”

It is not the first live sports broadcast in 3D, but Sky claims it is the first in Europe available to a public audience, although the locations where it could be viewed were not published in advance. The landmark broadcast could be viewed by punters wearing dark glasses in nine bars in London, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin that were equipped with 47 inch LG LD920 screens.

Sky plans to roll out its channel to hundreds of pubs from April, broadcasting a live Premier League match in 3D each week. Up to 25 matches from the World Cup football finals in South Africa in June will also be produced in 3D.

Sky 3D will be available to all Sky high-definition customers once 3D Ready displays reach the market later in the year, including models from LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony, using either passive polarised or active shutter glasses. It will work with existing Sky+ HD boxes and will be available at no extra cost for customers already subscribing to the top tier Sky World HD package.

“3D is without doubt one of the most talked-about developments in television for many years,” said Jeremy Darroch, chief executive of Sky. “We fully intend to take the lead in bringing the spectacle of 3D to the UK and Ireland.”

Gerry O’Sullivan, Director of Strategic Product Development said: “2010 is the year for 3D TV. People have already embraced 3D cinema and because Sky’s 3D service uses the same kind of technology, we’re confident there will be demand for sport, movies, concerts and drama in 3D.”

The consensus from footie fans appears to be that while the graphics and close-ups provided impressive depth, the long-shots were rather flat. That is simply because the stereoscopic effect works best for subjects that are relatively near. How far football coverage will benefit from 3D remains debatable but will be critical to the sales of new displays. No doubt there will be early adopters that will want to show off their new 3D telly to their mates but it is still unclear how far this will become mainstream.

Sky reported 172,000 net additions in the last quarter, taking its customer base to 9.7 million, within touch of its long-term target of ten million in 2010. It added nearly half a million Sky+ HD subscribers, taking the total over two million households. Nearly 6.5 million homes now have a Sky+ standard or high-definition digital video recorder.

The HD-enabled box will now be supplied as standard and will be free to subscribers of HD channels. Sky says this is made possible by the supply chain efficiencies that it gained through the acquisition of the Amstrad set-top box manufacturing business. It will also enable Sky to accelerate the development of new features that require the higher performance high-definition boxes, including targeted advertising, video-on-demand delivered over broadband and 3D services.

As an option, Sky is also introducing a premium product with one terabyte of storage, which it says is sufficient to store 240 hours of high-definition video, although Sky will reserve some of the capacity for its own use.

Sky is clearly signalling that high-definition is the new standard, in anticipation of the launch of Freeview HD, while suggesting that 3D is the new frontier. Gaining valuable publicity from its 3D initiative, Sky is continuing to grow and upgrade its core business, which shows no signs of slowing down in the current economic climate. Sky has managed to tighten its operational performance, reducing churn to 9.6% and increasing annual average revenue per customer by 11% to £492.