End of the Road for RPTV

Mitsubishi has decided to end all production of rear-projection DLP televisions, effective November 30, according to a story reported by CE Pro last week,.

The information came from a letter sent to Mitsubishi’s authorized service centers, and indicated that the 73-inch, 82-inch, and 92-inch models would be discontinued immediately. In addition, there would be “…a corresponding restructuring of the MEVSA organization.” (MEVSA stands for Mitsubishi Electrical Visual Solutions America.)

CE Pro editor Julie Jacobsen interviewed MEVSA executive Max Wasinger, who stated that the company was “…in the midst of an orderly exit from the DLP TV business” and would concentrate on commercial AV display products and home theater projection, going forward. (I’ve heard that several dozen people have already been let go from the Irvine, CA offices of MEVSA.)

Mitsubishi’s 92-inch DLP rear projector, introduced at CES 2011, was the largest RPTV ever made.

Rear-projection TV has actually been around for about 60 years, but the first big-screen sets with adequate brightness didn’t make an appearance until the 1980s. Pioneer was a leader in this space, but eventually withdrew from consumer markets to concentrate on videowall projection cubes in the 1990s.

Mitsubishi got into rear-projection TV in the 1990s and competed with Sony, Zenith, Panasonic, Hitachi, and Toshiba for market share for over a decade. The company was quite successful in that regard with its “Diamond” line of RPTVs, some of which retailed for well over $10,000 not that many years ago.

When DLP technology came along, Mitsubishi was quick to adopt it and continued to push the limit of screen sizes well over 70 diagonal inches. There simply wasn’t any other way to get a TV picture that large in a self-contained display, and at one time, the company had dozens of skews of DLP and CRT rear-projection sets in its product line.

Mits was the first company to mass-produce a laser-powered DLP RPTV (LaserVUE), which had a splashy coming-out party at CES a few years back. But the early models had power supply issues and were quite costly at a time when large plasma and then LCD prices began to plummet.

The coup de grace was large, inexpensive LCD TVs with 1080p resolution, such as Sharp’s 70-inch Aquos. This set has been priced several times for less than $2,000, and the 80-inch Aquos is now widely available for under $4,000. And of course, neither set requires a lamp to be replaced.

The drop in sales for rear-pro sets has been breathtaking: In the fourth quarter of 2010, about 65,000 rear-projection TVs were shipped worldwide, according to NPD DisplaySearch. A year later in Q4 2011, that number fell by 50% to 32,000 sets. And for Q3 2012, the total was just 9,000 sets – nearly a 75% decline.

Samsung, Mitsubishi’s last competitor in RPTV, exited the market a few years back to concentrate on LCD and plasma TVs. Mitsubishi also tried its hand at selling LCD TVs to the home theater market only, but pricing pressures, mass distribution, and competition from the likes of Vizio made that strategy untenable. Meanwhile, Samsung now dominates the LCD TV business, capturing over 28% of the worldwide market this year.

Is this bad news for Mitsubishi? Not really. The television business has become a drag on the bottom line of every Japanese consumer electronics manufacturer, and Mits was smart enough (albeit somewhat late in the game) to finally recognize that and do something about it.

The good news? Mitsubishi consistently scores highly in the pro AV market with their front projectors, tiled displays, and digital signage products, and there are a lot of clever engineers working at the Kyoto plant working on things like laser and LED light engines to keep things interesting for several years to come.

Their actions mirror that of industrial powerhouse Hitachi, which also chose to “get out while the getting’s good!” from consumer television earlier this year; choosing instead to concentrate on industrial computer and power products that are actually profitable.

Now, the question is – who’s next to throw in the towel? Of the major Japanese TV brands; only Toshiba, Panasonic, Sharp, and Sony are left. The latter three are looking at some pretty steep financial losses when their collective fiscal years wrap up next March, with the pain largely caused by underperforming television operations and expensive plasma and LCD fabs that are underutilized and in some cases even mothballed.

Hmmm…maybe we’re not quite at the end of the road just yet…