Posts Tagged ‘LCD TV’

Panasonic’s 2012 Home Entertainment Media Briefing – Pete Putman

Senior product manager Jason Gastman walks us through the 2012 TV lineup.

Panasonic’s 2012 TV and home entertainment line show took on extra importance this year, what with the company closing in on a $9.7 B (as in “billion”) loss for the fiscal year that will end on Friday, March 30. To be accurate, a substantial portion of that red ink is due to a goodwill accounting write-down on the 2009 acquisition of Sanyo, which will cease to exist as a corporate entity after Friday.

 

But the remainder is largely attributable to consumer electronics operations; specifically, the television business. Think about it: Just five years ago, a 42-inch plasma TV with 1080p resolution retailed for over $2,000. Now, the price is about 1/3 of that, meaning the cost per diagonal inch for that TV has dropped from about $47 to $15. (Real-world example: I paid $1,100 for a TH-42PX80U 42-inch 1080p Panasonic plasma in September of 2008.)

 

Frankly, Japanese TV manufacturers can’t be profitable at that price point, which is why Panasonic (along with Sony, Sharp, and other TV brands) are having such a miserable year financially.

 

But Panasonic was ‘different’ from the other guys in that it promoted plasma display technology as a differentiator. And Panasonic did (and still does) plasma better than anyone else, now that the late, lamented Pioneer plasma lineup has faded into history.

 

The focus on plasma meant that for years, there was a ‘green line’ between plasma screen sizes and LCD TV sizes that Panasonic simply would not cross. That line – 42 inches – was breached slightly in 2011 with the introduction of a couple of LCD TVs that used the company’s IPS-Alpha LCD alignment layer. (IPS stands for ‘in-plane switching’ and was originally developed by Hitachi. LG also uses a variant of IPS extensively in their LCD TV product line.)

The VIERA CONNECT menu is different for 2012, and adds some exclusive content partnerships.

 

This year, all bets were off as Panasonic blew by the ‘green line’ with 42-inch, 47-inch, and even 55-inch LCD TVs. And except for a couple of bargain-basement 42-inch 720p models and one 3D iteration, smaller Panasonic plasma TVs are now becoming history. The TC-P42X5 (720p) is tagged at $429.99 (meaning it will be the first 42-inch plasma to sell for less than $400 at an everyday price), while the TC-P42XT50 will retail at $650. The 50-inch XT50 also supports 3D playback.

 

The LCD usurpers all fall into the VIERA E50 series, which includes the TC-L42E50 ($900), TC-L47E50 ($1,100), and TC-L55E50 (price TBA). All three models use LED backlights and have 1080p resolution; VIERA Connect; social networking TV function; DLNA; a PC input; four HDMI terminals and two USB ports. And all models are ‘WiFi-ready’ (you have to buy a separate USB dongle and plug it in).

 

Back to plasma: The ‘top of the line’ models for 2012 are in the ST50 series, and include (quoting from the press release) “…Infinite Black Pro Panel; Full HD 3D; VIERA Connect™ with a web browser and built-in WiFi; 1080p Full HD resolution; 2500 FFD (Focused Field Drive); fast switching phosphors; 2D ? 3D conversion; Social Networking TV which allows the user to simultaneously view a program on the TV and connect with their Twitter and/or Facebook account on the same screen ; 3D Real Sound with 8-train speakers –eight dome type micro speakers with reflectors that deliver wide ranging, high quality sound; a new louver filter; Media Player;  Bluetooth; DLNA; VIERA Link™; three HDMI connections and two USB ports.” (Wow, let me catch my breath for a moment…)

The TC-P50ST50 plasma line is loaded for bear. So why does it offer only three HDMI inputs?

 

Does that sound like the feature set of a TV, or of a computer? The ST50 plasma sets actually have a dual-core processor, and with all of the listed input and output ports – plus all of the apps, streaming capabilities, WiFi, and other features – they basically ARE computers, albeit fitted with very large plasma monitors. You can get ‘em in sizes ranging from 50 inches (TC-P50ST50, $1,400) to 65 inches (TC-P65ST50, price TBA).

 

For ‘Full HD 3D’ plasma viewing (their wording), Panasonic offers the UT50 series, which starts at 42 inches (TC-P42UT50, $800) and goes all the way to 60 inches (TC-P60UT50, ($1800 – and no, I don’t know why there isn’t a 65-inch SKU in this lineup.) UT50 plasma TVs are all 1080p resolution, with VIERA Connect (you need to buy the WiFi dongle separately), media player, faster switching phosphors, Bluetooth connectivity, DLNA operation, two HDMI connections (Why only two? There are three on the ST50 series!), and dual USB ports.

 

Now, here’s the weird part. Panasonic, along with Samsung and Sony, launched the Full HD 3D initiative (read the press release here) in 2011, and at CES 2012, demonstrated interoperability between different models of active shutter 3D glasses. The goal was to educate and inform consumers that active shutter 3D TV is a very different (and better) animal than the passive 3D TVs that employ circularly-polarized eyewear and deliver half the vertical picture resolution. (LG is the biggest proponent of passive 3D, which is similar to the process used in 3D movie theaters.)

 

So – you’d think Panasonic would be firmly behind active shutter? Guess again. The new line of ET5-series LCD TVs uses film-patterned retarder (FPR) LCD panels and have most of the bells and whistles of the VIERA line, including built-in Wifi, 2D to 3D conversion, the internal media player, DLNA compatibility, and the social networking TV functions.

Full HD 3D is the only way to go! (Except when it isn't.)

 

Oddly enough, the ET5 TVs come with four HDMI inputs, which is more than any other model range. And of course, you get four pairs of passive 3D glasses with each TV, starting with the TC-L42ET5 ($$1,100) and continuing with the TC-L47ET5 ($1,300) and TC-L55ET5 ($1,900).

 

When I asked Panasonic representatives why they continue to support both plasma and LCD in the same screen size, even though plasma TV sales accounted for only 13.5% of the worldwide market last year, they replied that there was still enough demand for the product through ‘niche’ dealers, especially in the larger sizes. That’s probably true for the high-end VXT products, but I don’t see how any 42-inch plasma will be in the line next year – and 50-inch sizes may also be heading towards the endangered species list if those market share numbers keep dropping.

 

I got a similar answer when I asked Panasonic to reconcile its emphatic support for active shutter 3D with the launch of several passive 3D TV models. The reply was something to the extent that these models didn’t have all of the goodies of the UT50 series (but they do have more HDMI inputs!) and that the company was simply responding to consumer demand.

Jonesing for connected Blu-ray players? Panasonic's got six of 'em.

 

OK, let’s take a closer look at what’s really happening. First, Panasonic sells a lot of LCD TVs. (In fact, they sold more of them back in 2010 than Sharp did!) But for all of 2011, the market leader in combined LCD and plasma TV sales was Samsung, capturing 26% of the business in the fourth quarter. Panasonic was way back in fourth place with 6.9% of the market. According to NPD DisplaySearch, this was the first time that someone other than Panasonic led in worldwide plasma TV shipments.

 

Remember about six years ago when Panasonic announced it was building new plasma fabs that would ultimately give it the capacity to roll out 11 million plasma TVs a year? The ENTIRE plasma TV market for 2011 was 5.2 million units, a decline year-to-year of 8%. Overall, plasma TV shipments accounted for just 13.5% of the worldwide total.

 

As a result, Panasonic has idled a good portion of its plasma manufacturing capacity, along with a lot of its LCD capacity. Across the board, Panasonic’s TV revenue share declined 19% from 2010, which is a big contributor to all the red ink I mentioned at the start of this article. So the company’s 2012 TV marketing strategy may be more along the lines of “Let’s throw everything at the wall and see if anything sticks!”

 

Truth be told, we are probably looking at the demise of plasma as a consumer TV display technology in the not-too-distant future. Panasonic will eventually run into the same buzz saw that sliced up Pioneer – too much fab capacity and not enough market demand. It’s a great idea on paper to say you’ll continue to support plasma in the high-end and niche markets, but there comes a point where it just doesn’t make sense economically to stay in the business – and Panasonic is already staring at unprecedented losses for the year.

 

As for 3D, the DisplaySearch numbers show that TV purchases that were specifically tied to 3D capability amounted to about 7% of all TVs sold in North America in the third quarter of 2011 (the latest quarter for which I could find numbers). Active shutter or not, 3D TV just isn’t selling well on this part of the planet, but Panasonic’s support for passive 3D makes no sense at all – it’s not like the numbers are going to change as a result.

Now, there's a remote control you don't see every day. (Notice the button dedicated to Netflix streaming?)

 

In another portion of the demo room, Panasonic showed just how good its black levels are on 2012 plasma TV models, compared to 2011. Excuse me, but I recall seeing this same demo for the past six years, and the black levels on my 2008 model are already excellent – measuring below .1 nits on average. The 2011 VIERA ‘before’ plasma I observed had black levels resembling a 2006-vintage LCD TV, and didn’t look right to me. It’s time to retire this demonstration!

 

Oh, I almost forgot: There will be six new Blu-ray players in the line this year, three more than are really necessary. Four of them fall into the Smart Network 3D Blu-ray category, starting with the top-line DMP-BDT500 ($350) and stepping down through the DMP-BDT320 ($200) to the DMP-BDT220 ($150). There’s also the very compact and stylish DMP-BBT01 ($270), which can operate horizontally and vertically.

 

All four models offer (and I quote from the press release again) “…an improved UniPhier chip processor, 24p output for VOD, an expanded VIERA Connect functionality, and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec),192Hz/32bit Audio DAC (not available on the DMP-BBT01), Smartphone remote control capability, a new touchpad remote control (available on DMP-BBT01, DMP-BDT500, DMP-BDT320),  2D-to-3D up-conversion2, which can convert 2D images from VIERA Connect1,  DVDs and Blu-ray discs into 3D with natural depth perception, a new slim design and a unique slot-in drive that is found in two of the models (the DMP-BBT01 and DMP-BDT320).”

 

Two non-3D players also make their debut. The DMP-BD87 will retail for $120, while the DMP-BD77 is the entry-level model, priced at $90. The difference? Built-in WiFi on the DMP-BD87, while you’ll need the accessory USB dongle for the DMP-BD77. Both models (and the four 3D versions) are also ‘Smart VIERA’ enabled and support the most popular Internet TV sources, including Netflix, YouTube, CinemaNow, Vudu, and Hulu Plus.

 

The reality of most Blu-ray player purchases is that people are buying them primarily to get inexpensive access to Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. These three services account for something like 80% of all video streaming these days, and a connected Blu-ray player is a great way to add streaming to an older (but not THAT old) LCD or plasma TV – like mine.

 

Panasonic also has some new, more ergonomic remote controls for its TVs and Blu-ray players. One of them has just a few buttons and a touch pad, similar to those found on notebook computers. (Oh wait, I forgot – TVs are basically computers nowadays…)

 

So there you have it – plasma TVs to 65 inches, LCD TVs with LED backlights to 55 inches (and very likely to 60 inches in short order), and both active and passive 3D TVs. Something for everybody in 2012!

 

Come to think about it, this roster reads a lot like the LG TV lineup from 2009, and we all know what eventually happened to their active 3D TV line…

 

The Rout Is On – by Pete Putman

As things go, the flat screen TV business is relatively young. Until ten years ago, large LCD TVs weren’t even viable products. And plasma dominated the large screen (42” and up) flat screen TV business.

 

But neither technology held any substantial market share. Instead, CRT televisions (and rear-projection CRT sets) were ‘kings of the hill.’

 

Going back through some of my archives, I found that in the fourth quarter of 2005, CRT TVs held a 78.9% worldwide market share. That represented a decline of 15% from Q4 of 2004, no doubt due to the 137% increase in LCD TV market share in the same time period (yes, you read that right, 137%!).

 

While LCD TVs held a 14.7% market share, plasma TV share grew from 1.8% of all TVs sold to 3.9%, a growth rate of 109%. CRT rear-projection TVs held .9% of the market, a drop of 60% from Q4 ’04, while microdisplay RPTVs grew to 1.6% of the pie, an increase of 52% over the same time period. (All numbers compiled from DisplaySearch reports.)

 

How about the major TV brands? From Q3 ’05 to Q4 ’05, it might surprise you to learn that Sony had the top TV brand revenue share and growth, with 14% of all TV sales revenue (a quarterly growth rate of 130%)! Samsung was right behind with 11% revenue share and 36% Q-Q growth, followed by Philips (9.1% revenue share, 31% Q-Q growth), Panasonic (8.3% revenue share, 13% Q-Q growth), and LG (7.8% revenue share, 28% Q-Q growth).

 

These five companies accounted for 50% of all TV revenue in Q4 of 2005. And there was only about a 6-point spread between #1 and #5, so the pie was being divvied up pretty equally.

 

In terms of TV brand unit share, the order was changed somewhat. LG captured the number one spot with 9.8% unit share in Q4 ‘05, followed by Samsung (9.2%), TTE (7.5%), Philips (7.1%), and Sony (6.9%). The remaining 60% was chopped up among a host of brands.

 

The eye-opener here was when I went back to the beginning of 2005. For the first quarter of the year, Sharp topped the branded TV market share with an amazing 21% (a year-to-year growth of 82%). Philips was number 2 with 14.7% share, followed by Samsung (10.8%), Sony (10%), and LG (7.3%). The five brands accounted for 60% of all TV sales back then.

 

So – in a little less than a year, Sony added 7% to its brand share, while Samsung marched in place, LG picked up about 2 points, Sharp fell off the map completely, and Philips lost half its brand share. (TTE didn’t show up in the 2005 listings at all.)

 

Now, let’s jump ahead to Q4 2011. NPD DisplaySearch’s latest numbers show that LCD flatscreen TVs now account for 86.5% of all TVs sold worldwide. Plasma continues to decline as it pushes into a larger screen ‘niche,’ grabbing a miniscule 6.9% market share. Amazingly, CRT TVs still held a 6.4% share, while RPTVs managed to eke out a .0004% market share – look for this category to be killed off completely in 2012.

 

And the tables have turned completely from 2005 in terms of worldwide market share. Samsung managed the amazing feat of increasing its market share to 26.3% from Q4 ’10 to Q4 ’11, an all-time record and an amazing growth rate of 18% in an otherwise-flat (no pun intended) industry. LG was far behind Samsung with a 13.4% market share, essentially unchanged since Q4 ’10.

 

As for Sony, they also held steady at 9.8%, basically the same as a year before, while Panasonic saw a decline of 2% to 6.9%. Sharp – who continues to sell fewer LCD TVs than Panasonic, incredibly – experienced a decline of 7% from Q4 ’10 to a 5.9% market share in Q4 ’11. These five brands accounted for 62.3% of the 74,236,000 TVs sold.

 

So what does this all mean? First, Samsung has clearly blown away everyone else in the TV industry, opening up a double-digit lead over their nearest competitor (LG) in market share. And those two guys waste time arguing about whether passive or active is better for 3D viewing?

 

Second, we’re seeing the slow, inexorable end of the Japanese television industry, just as we saw it happen in the United States in the late 1970s to the late 1980s. Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic are all hemorrhaging money for the current fiscal year that ends on March 31, and the consumer TV business is the primary reason.

 

When TVs sold for $50 per diagonal inch and up, there was plenty of money on the table for everyone. But now that mainstream TVs screen sizes (up to 55 inches) are selling for $10 – $15 per diagonal inch, the Japanese simply can’t compete anymore. And it will only get worse with Chinese TV brands Haier, Hisense, TCL, and others establishing beachheads on all continents.

 

Third, it’s over. The fat lady has sung. Samsung has won. They set out in the mid-1990s to beat Sony at their own game, and by any reasonable account, have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Samsung will make a nice profit on 2011 TV sales, and LG will at least get their LCD TV business back into the black.

 

But the story isn’t so pretty for Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic. Sharp still has no explanation for their continual slide in market share, which apparently began in 2005 and continued uninterrupted, and which has now idled (by some accounts) 50% of their LCD fab capacity. As for Panasonic, they’d already shut down one LCD and one plasma factory in 2011, because demand just isn’t there. And no one in Osaka knows how to fix the problem.

 

Sony is being pressured by financial analysts in Japan to get out of the TV business altogether, a decision which, as painful as it might be to management given Sony’s long and rich history with TV manufacturing, is probably the most sensible thing to do. The company’s TV business has lost money for eight straight years – never mind the strong market share numbers that popped up early on.

 

And it’s not going to get better any time soon, as DisplaySearch stated that 2011 worldwide TV shipments actually declined .3% in 2011, reversing six consecutive years of growth. Only the LCD TV category showed any increase with a bare-bones 1% uptick. Everything else was on a downhill slide, with plasma declining 7%, CRTs falling 43%, and RPTVs in a 51% tailspin.

 

Hitachi has already pulled the plug on their TV business. Toshiba and Mitsubishi will no doubt follow suit in the next 12-24 months. And that will leave us with the Hatfields & McCoys in Korea, plus a host of Chinese brands you may want to get familiar with. (The running joke at CES 2012 is that it was the “Chinese” Electronics Show, and that’s not far from the truth!)

 

The rout is on…

3M Wants to Expand Market for DBEF Reflective Polarizer, by Ken Werner

During CES 2012, 3M’s Optical Systems Division set up a demonstration in the Sony Theater at the MGM Grand. Dave Lamb (Senior Physics Research Specialist) and Dave Iverson (Business Manager, LCD Television Business) discussed a consumer study sponsored by 3M and conducted by CBS Vision that bolstered 3M’s contention that using the company’s Vikuiti DBEF reflective polarizer film is a significant value add for TV brands.

The results of the study had been announced a few weeks previously, but in Las Vegas I could experience the experimental set-up and explore some aspects not covered in the press release.

First, let’s back up. What is DBEF, and what does it do? In a conventional backlit LCD display, only half the light from the backlight passes through the bottom absorbing polarizer. It is only this light, which is polarized in the proper direction to make it through the bottom polarizer, that can be processed by the LCD pixels to make an image. So, before the display can do anything useful with the light, we are throwing half of it away.

3M’s Dual Brightness Enhancing Film (DBEF) is a reflective polarizer film that reflects light of the “wrong” polarization instead of absorbing it. When the light bounces around after being reflected, its polarization is randomized by its reflections, so some of this light can now pass through the DBEF film. Ultimately, most of the light that originally had the “wrong” polarization, makes it through the DBEF. Since the polarization axis of the DBEF is aligned with the axis of the bottom polarizer, most of this light passes through the bottom polarizer. (Not all of the light passes through, because the bottom polarizer is not 100% transparent even for light of the correct polarization.) Measurements have shown that DBEF displays are 32% brighter than displays without DBEF.
So, how was this perceived by subjects in the CBS Visual study? In the study, viewers were placed mid-way between two TV sets, each viewed at a 45-degree angle. One TV set had a DBEF reflective polarizer in the optical stack, the other had only the standard absorptive polarizer. Although there was more light in the viewing cone, the DBEF set used 15% less power.

When I sat where the test subjects had been seated, the DBEF set was clearly brighter. Lamb said that 88% of test group agreed with me, and that 83% of males and 64% of females 55 years old and older said they would pay an average of $200 for such a set.

Among the test group 46% said they typically watched their TV set at a viewing angle more than 15 degrees from dead center even when viewing alone. That number jumped to 67% for viewing with other people.

Lamb told me 3M has characterized roughly 150 TV sets since 2007-08. The typical luminance was 500 nits in 2008; it is 300 nits now. Energy Star is a major reason for the shift. But 500 nits was overkill at the time, motivated my luminance being a point of differentiation at a time when LCD-TV was still battling with both CRT and plasma for dominance. But now, Lamb said, TV manufacturers may be pushing the lower limit of luminance in pursuit of additional energy savings. How dim is too dim?

Clearly, 3M would like to convince TV manufacturers that DBEF is the solution to this conundrum for a wider range of models. DBEF is currently used in many high-end sets (including “a preponderance” of Sony sets), but 3M is hoping that with more awareness of users wanting higher viewing angle and more brightness in addition to low power, TV makers will respond.

Ho-Ho-Ho! Is Turning Into Uh-Oh-Oh!

The results are in, and they aren’t pretty.

 

Both Sony and Panasonic posted substantial losses for the current fiscal quarter and are looking at lots of red ink next March, when their current fiscal year ends. Sony forecast a $2.2 billion loss for its TV operations in the fiscal year that ends next March. Overall, the company is looking at a $1.1 billion net loss for the current financial year, which reverses an earlier prediction of a $730 million profit.

 

This is Sony’s eighth straight year of losses for its flagship TV lines and rumors are flying that its S-LCD partnership with Samsung may be deep-sixed. Earlier, Sony announced it would split its television business into three divisions, consisting of (a) outsourcing, (b) the current LCD TV business, and (c) next-generation TVs (read: OLEDs), starting November 1.

 

But that may not be enough to stem the tide. Some prominent Asian market analysts think Sony should bite the bullet and just pull the plug on TVs altogether, concentrating on their gaming console, smart phone, VAIO computer, and camcorder operations.

 

The easier path to income may be for Sony to license its name to a Chinese TV manufacturer and collect royalties, much the same as Philips has done with Funai in North America.

 

Panasonic is looking at as much as $5.4 billion in losses by year’s end. The culprits are the high value of the yen against the dollar and euro, and the merger and re-sizing of the combined Sanyo – Panasonic operations.

 

Two TV manufacturing plants in Japan will be taken offline, while plasma TV production capacity will be cut by 48%. Further procurement will move to Singapore from Osaka, and plans to relocate plasma fabs to mainland China will also be put into limbo. The company expects to cut its payroll to 350,000 employees worldwide.

 

What does all of this mean to you? Expect to see deep discounts on TVs starting around Black Friday. There will be some amazing deals on large (55 inch and up) LCD and plasma TVs. Even the 3D products are going to come down in price, continuing a trend of diminishing premiums for 3D functionality.

 

So if you are in the market for a new LCD or plasma TV, this could be the perfect year to upgrade. Watch your online price trackers and be ready to move when you see a good price. Right now, you can find ‘basic’ LCD and plasma TVs for about $10-$12 per diagonal inch, up to 55 inches – use that as a baseline when you are wheeling and dealing. Who knows? You may do even better!

Wishing Won’t Make It So

These Elite sets may look great, but you can't get by on looks anymore in the TV game.

Last Thursday in New York City, Pioneer and Sharp took the wraps off a new line of high-end LCD TVs that will carry the familiar Elite brand. These products are intended to fill a hole in the high-end television retail channel; one that was created when Pioneer pulled the plug on their Kuro plasma sets a couple of years ago.

 

For readers who didn’t know, Sharp owns a 14% stake in Pioneer, and the two companies have collaborated on products in the past. You may not remember, but Sharp once carried 42-inch and 50-inch Pioneer plasma TVs in their line. That was back in the day when large LCD panels were difficult to manufacture and very expensive.

 

It’s instructive here to remember why Pioneer pulled out of the plasma TV business. First off, Pioneer had the smallest fabrication capacity of any of the big plasma brands, cranking out a fraction of the monthly yields of Panasonic and Samsung.

 

Second, Pioneer made the mistake of continuing to focus only on high-end retail channels for their plasma TVs long after it was clear that the plasma market was being commoditized. Panasonic’s best plasma TV sets were widely available through numerous brick-and-mortar stores for much lower prices and offered comparable performance to Pioneer’s offerings.

 

Even the vaunted Kuro sets couldn’t compete. Sure, they had super-deep black levels. But the additional first surface polarizers used to pull off that trick also dropped brightness levels to the point where the Kuro sets had to be viewed in dark or near-dark rooms. Panasonic, Samsung, and LG suffered from no such limitations.

 

In the end, the math is what did Pioneer in. You can’t make money these days selling a mass-produced flat screen display product in limited quantities at a price premium. It simply will not work. That is one reason why Hitachi exited the plasma TV business and ultimately the LCD TV business in the United States.

 

It appears that Pioneer didn’t learn that lesson. Neither did Sharp, who has a seen a precipitous drop in LCD TV market share since 2006. The Aquos brand, which once commanded better than 20% of the U.S. TV market, now struggles to hold onto 3% of it. Even the new Quattron four-color LCD TVs have met largely with yawns, and it doesn’t help that TVs are a tough sell in general these days. (Notice how even market giant Vizio has been pushing tablets and phones lately?)

 

According to a story in TWICE, the motivation for the new Elite LCD TVs came from Cedia dealers who said there was a definite hole in the market after the Kuro sets were discontinued and Runco shut down its Vidikron brand. (Runco/Planar’s misadventures in the home theater channel are another story altogether.)

 

Hence, Sharp and Pioneer created an Elite sales and marketing channel, with Sharp providing the TVs and Pioneer supplying Blu-ray players and AV receivers. The Elite TVs will be sold exclusively in North America, limited at first to about 750 dealers with the possibility of expansion into a larger base.

 

Elite dealers can either order TVs directly from Sharp or through a one-step distribution process. That last sentence should give pause; moving products to distribution guarantees that prices will drop over time and more retail outlets will be found to increase the volume of sales, thereby removing the ‘elite’ part of the equation. That’s what distributors do, unless they’re not serious about making money.

 

If this is such a good idea, why haven’t Sony and Samsung taken a similar approach? Sony’s woes with TV profitability are well-documented, while Samsung (and LG, and even Panasonic) recognized that mass-produced products can’t be sold in onesies and twosies for very long. But with Sharp’s inability to reverse its six-year slide in TV market share and Pioneer’s apparent jonesing to get back into the TV business, it appears both companies will give any idea a try these days.

 

For the record, the two Elite models that were launched were the 60-inch PRO-60X5FD, shipping this week for $5,999, and the 70-inch PRO-70X5FD, shipping later this month for $8,499. Those same screen sizes in the Aquos LCD TV line can be had for about $3,300 and $4,800, respectively.

 

The usual hype accompanied the press event, with Pioneer claiming these sets have the best black levels in the LCD TV business (that’s not saying much) and no competitors can come close. Sound familiar?

 

Here’s something else to think about. According to HIS iSuppli research, the “sweet spot” for U.S. TV sales is in the range of 40 to 49 inches. In the first quarter of 2011, that bracket accounted for 40% of all TV sales. The #2 position was occupied by the 30 – 39 inch group with 25% of all TV sales. In short. these two categories combined accounted for two out of every three TVs sold in this country from January through March.

 

Screens measuring 50 inches and larger represented 23% of all TV sales in that same time period. Although iSuppli didn’t drill down, I’d bet that 60 to 70 percent of the TVs sold within that category measured between 50 and 55 inches. That doesn’t leave a lot of market share to play with, if you want to sell 60-inch and larger screens.

 

The question here – as was the case with the Kuro plasma TVs – is how many units would have to be sold to turn a profit, and how many units the pro AV and Cedia channels could absorb at the listed prices. I would suspect that the answers are (a) a lot more than Sharp and Pioneer think, and (b) a lot less than Sharp and Pioneer think.Again, it’s all about the numbers these days – competitive prices and volume of sales.

 

Sharp has additional pressure on it to perform, given that it built the world’s only Gen 10 LCD fab a couple of years ago in Sakai, Japan. Sony was supposed to hold a 34% stake in the fab, but has capped its investment below 10% and is instead looking to China for lower-cost LCD TV panels. What will Sharp do with all of that capacity? And the fact that their finished panels are too expensive when compared to Korean and Chinese glass?

 

You can’t exist on high-end TV sales alone. Mitsubishi was the latest company to figure this out and underwent a massive re-organization this past spring to try and salvage what’s left of their rear-projection TV operations. Sony has lost so much money in the television business that it may have to walk away from manufacturing altogether and just private-label Chinese-made products in the future.

 

Wishing won’t make it so.