Posts Tagged ‘Panasonic’

Toshiba TVs: A Fade to Black? UPDATED

EDITOR’S UPDATE: Toshiba has indeed begun the process of moving its Wayne, NJ consumer products division to Irvine, California; integrating it with the company’s IT division. A press release detailing this move (which I missed, whoops!) came out on May 6, 2010.

Yes, Toshiba is following Samsung’s lead by consolidating the offices and operations of its consumer and professional divisions. But that’s only a sidebar to what is potentially a big (and perhaps insurmountable) problem facing the company, and that’s a slow and steady decline in market share among LCD TV brands.

According to an August 18th press release from industry analyst Riddhi Patel of iSuppli, Toshiba’s LCD TV market share in the United States has shrunken from 7.4% with 570,000 TVs shipped in the 2nd quarter of 2009 to 5.5% with 402,000 shipments in Q2 of 2010.

That’s not an insubstantial number. To put that into starker terms, Toshiba’s LCD TV shipments have dropped by almost 30% in one year, which should be sending up a huge red flag in the company’s executive offices…wherever they wind up next.

What is also alarming is that Toshiba’s market share has now fallen into Pioneer and Hitachi territory from 2007 and 2008. A few years ago, Pioneer had a 7% share among plasma TV shipments that dropped to about 5% within a two-year period (while the company was also hemorrhaging red ink). By late 2008, they had decided to throw in the towel and exited the plasma TV business in the spring of 2009.

Remember Hitachi? They once led the market in rear projection TVs and made some top-notch CRT sets, too. Hitachi was also a leader in plasma technology, building an enormous plasma fab on the island of Kyushu with partner Fujitsu in 1999.

Today, that plant is largely superfluous, as the company has withdrawn from selling plasma TVs. And you won’t find any Hitachi LCD TVs at Best Buy, or HH Gregg, or Wal-Mart, or Sears (they do have some nice Hitachi electric drills, though!).

Looking through the Amazon.com Web site, I found a handful of Hitachi sets that are either the last left in stock, or used models.  (And the company was conspicuous by its absence at CES 2010.)

The iSuppli report lists the current top five LCD TV brands as Samsung, Vizio, Sony, LG, and (surprise!) Sanyo, leaving Toshiba in the #6 slot. That’s quite a fall, as they were ranked #4 in Q2 of 2009. Panasonic showed up at #8 with a 3.1% market share, but their core business in plasma TVs.

Another shocker: Sharp, once the leader in LCD TV sales, brought up the rear with a 2.4% share, a decline from 4.7% in Q2 of 2009 and a drop in Y-Y shipments of 49%. Yikes! (Is Sharp on the LCD TV endangered species list, too? That’s another story for another time…)

Given all of the LCD fab capacity in Asia and indications of LCD TV oversupply in the channel, the logical result is another round of price wars. That’s a game that Toshiba can’t compete in, because they don’t manufacture LCD panels, and would have to do some serious shopping in Taiwan and China to keep manufacturing costs down.

However, three of the five brands ahead of them do make LCD panels  (Yep, Sanyo does make LCD panels, although they also buy glass on the open market), the exceptions being Vizio and Sony. But Sony is still sitting pretty because they are major investors in both the Korean S-LCD Gen 7 joint venture fab with Samsung and Sharp’s new Gen 10 LCD fab in Kameyama, Japan. (Sony owns about 34% of the Kameyama factory and a corresponding amount of the LCD panel output.)

Toshiba was one of the first companies to introduce LED backlights in their TVs. In fact, they were one of the first companies to use the term ‘LED TV,’ thereby creating instant consumer confusion about perceived differences between LCD and LED TVs.

The past decade hasn’t been kind to Toshiba. Their prized HD-DVD technology was vanquished by Sony’s Blu-ray format (supposedly with the help of a $400 million dollar payoff to Warner Home Media), and the crown jewel – the DVD format – is showing its age and in decline.

Toshiba was one of the few companies to show working 3D TV sets with active shutter technology at CES 2010. And their Cell TV architecture (co-developed with Sony) is a powerful platform on which to build next-gen TV designs that can stream multiple channels of HDTV programs and incorporate hand gesture recognition for operation and control.

But all of that may be for naught, if this negative market share trend continues.  It doesn’t help that Toshiba is perceived as a ‘mid range’ TV brand now, according to what an industry colleague heard when he recently visited several Best Buy stores in southern California and could find only two models of Toshiba LCD TVs for sale.

The marketplace is indeed a harsh mistress…

Redbox: A “Blu-race” to the bottom?

Don’t look now, but Blu-ray is coming to your local Acme. Or Walgreens.

Redbox, the “buck-a-night” DVD rental company, will soon be stocking Blu-ray movies at the end of the checkout counter. And you can rent ’em for $1.50 a night.

Redbox stated in a recent press release that it would initially offer Blu-ray discs in 13,300 of its kiosks, expanding across its entire network of 23,000 kiosks by the fall. Each Redbox kiosk holds 630 discs , or about 200 movie titles.

Redbox is on a roll financially, according to a story in Media and Entertainment Daily. The company’s revenue stream grew by almost 44% Y-Y for the second quarter. And they’re getting most of that revenue at the expense of traditional brick-and-mortar video rental stores (read: Blockbuster).

NCR, another player in the DVD kiosk business with the Blockbuster Express brand, hasn’t announced yet when they will be adding Blu-ray discs to their lineup.

At $1.50 per night, it really doesn’t make sense to buy a Blu-ray disc of any movie. The typical BD release is priced around $25 retail, or 16 times the Redbox rental cost. Not that there will be a huge demand for BD movies out of the gate – while the best estimates from The Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) have market penetration of Blu-ray players, Blu-ray drives in PCs, and Blu-ray equipped consoles (like PlayStation 3) at 19.4 million homes so far, there’s simply no reliable way to know how many of those PS3 consoles are being used to watch Blu-ray movies.

To put things in perspective, Netflix has over 14 million customers now. Comcast has slightly more, as does DirecTV. And any subscribers to those services can access video on demand (VOD) or streaming, if their TV and/or set-top box is so equipped. (PlayStation 3 is, and can even stream from Netflix!)

Given that some BD players are now available for less than $100, this could be an incentive for families to finally try out the BD format. Or maybe they will put that PS3 console to work to watch recent releases like The Bounty Hunter or The Book of Eli in full1080p HD…that is, if they have a HDTV screen large enough, and of the correct resolution.

Of course, if the BD movie title they want isn’t available, they’ll probably just rent the red laser version for a buck and be done with it. Redbox is a convenience service, based on a low-cost impulse purchase decision. If the movie is for a kid’s party or to keep the children otherwise entertained, it makes no difference whether it is a conventional DVD or a blue laser disc.

The question is how many videophiles will make use of the Redbox service. My theater at home is set up for HD, with a 92-inch Da-Lite projection screen and Mitsubishi HC6000 projector. So I’m definitely interested in $1.50 BD rentals!

The only problem is, I’ve been watching so many time-shifted TV shows on my 42-inch 1080p plasma in my family room (plus the occasional red laser DVD-by-mail) that the theater hasn’t been used much lately. Picture quality from an OPPO DV983 upscaling DVD player is so good that it isn’t worth bothering with Blu-ray playback on that plasma screen. I should know better, you might say…but I do, and you can’t see much of a difference between the two formats. At least, nothing to nit-pick about. That’s how good the OPPO scaler is.

In a nutshell, this move by Redbox promises to deliver additional revenue to studios, but probably not as much as they would have liked. No one in Hollywood is happy about the bottom falling out of the DVD rental market, but what other choice do they have?

The question is whether enough customers will prefer the improved quality of a BD movie over red laser DVDs and Netflix streaming to justify Redbox’ additional costs in stocking Blu-ray movies. If this doesn’t help the format take off, then nothing will.

Memo to 3D TV manufacturers: First, you build the highway. Then, you build the cars!

The latest PR blurb from CEA headquarters shows that, in a survey taken of 250 sales associates in retail stores, consumer enthusiasm for 3D is strong, with 50% of customers reporting a positive response to 3D technologies, and only 2% reporting a negative response.

That’s not necessarily good news. Do the math, and you’ll see that 47% of customers had no feelings about 3D TV one way or the other, or didn’t respond. (Or were distracted by their teenagers repeatedly begging Mom and Dad for an iPhone or iPod Touch.)

The CEA report does go on to say that “…While nearly 70 percent of sales associates feel well trained to answer questions about 3D, there is still consumer confusion. According to the retail associates interviewed, roughly half of consumers had some confusion about the technology.” That pretty much covers the 47% who didn’t respond positively or negatively.

And now for the devil in the details! “…For most retail associates, 3D content is pivotal. Nearly 80 percent of the associates interviewed believe sales of 3D technologies will not be strong until more 3D content is available.  Moreover, some of the most frequently asked questions by consumers revolved around the availability of 3D content. “

World Cup in 3D…Been there, done that. What else ya got?

There’s the rub. 3D may look great in the store, but how much 3D World Cup coverage can you watch before nodding off? (Hey, did you catch Paraguay and Japan fighting to a 0-0 tie?) And there are only a couple of 3D Blu-ray discs out there that haven’t been exclusively linked up to a 3D TV bundle promotion.

DirecTV is taking some steps to solve the problem today, announcing the launch of its 24-hour 3D channel in conjunction with Panasonic at a New York City press event. That’s good news for DirecTV customers, but it’s not much help to cable or Dish Network subscribers who are currently limited to ESPN 3D.

If this seems like déjà vu all over again (apologies to Yogi Berra), it is. Remember the start of the digital TV transition in 1998, when exactly two DTV stations went on the air? (For trivia buffs, they were WRAL (CBS) in Raleigh, NC, and WFAA (ABC) in Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX.)

Set-top boxes cost about two grand. You needed component inputs on your TV that could accept the 1080i signal from the box (good luck with the 720p outputs), plus an antenna, and maybe a preamp, and a bunch of coax, and a compass to tell you where to aim the antenna.

Oh, and yes – you needed HDTV content. But there was very little of it back then, aside from some CBS prime-time programs and the ABC Saturday Night Movie. It wasn’t until four years later (2002) before most of the TV networks were carrying a majority of their evening programs and sports coverage in HD. Can 3D TV manufacturers afford to wait that long?

It’s encouraging that 70% of the sales associates interviewed by CEA felt competent enough to answer questions about 3D. But that’s not the problem, based on my experience last Sunday at Best Buy. Only two out of four 3D TV demos in the store were actually working, and one was located in the worst possible spot for a demo. The other had only one pair of working 3D glasses. How do you answer questions about 3D, when customers can’t even see a demonstration of it?

This is where a company like Sony has a leg up with their Sony Style company stores. They can ensure (and they’d better!) that potential customers get the best possible 3D demo, with a large screen LCD TV and comfortable seats positioned at the correct viewing distance. And they can put together a nice mix of live 3D (Sony is a World Cup sponsor) and clips from Sony Pictures 3D movies (think Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).

Samsung’s ‘experience’ store in the Time-Warner Center in New York City is also an excellent place to demo 3D. (Hmmm. Maybe Samsung should be thinking about opening their own company stores!) Alas, Panasonic has no such showcase and is at the mercy of Best Buy and Sears. And Mitsubishi (who has some of the most compelling 3D TV value propositions right now) has no 3D showcases at all. (Too bad they can’t just truck their June NYC line show around the country!)

Now, THIS is how ALL 3D demos should look. (Dream on…)

But all the demos in the world won’t do any good if there is nothing to watch in 3D. And for the vast majority of potential 3D TV customers, there just isn’t enough to watch in 3D right now, so the credit cards and checkbooks are staying in pockets and purses.

Hopefully, that problem will sort itself out by year’s end, when we should see a flurry of 3D BD releases, more coverage of sporting events, the launch of Discovery’s 3D channel, and maybe even some 3D streaming from Netflix. (That last possibility assumes Netflix can get over some significant technical hurdles, such as bandwidth.)

Hint to TV manufacturers, and to Fox Sports: S-U-P-E-R B-O-W-L I-N 3-D. (Think that was subtle enough?)

So, we’re back to 1998. Grab some shovels and picks, and let’s get started on those highways! (Maybe there are still some stimulus funds available?)

3D TV at Best Buy: An afterthought?

To complete the 3D off-axis viewing tests described in my previous post, I drove to a local Best Buy store on Sunday, June 27. The actual store will remain anonymous, but is located near a major shopping mall and down the street from other big box retailers.

I figured they’d have at least one Samsung and one Panasonic 3D TV demo set up and running. However, what I found when I got there just left me shaking my head in disgust.

The Samsung 3D TV demo was set up at the edge of the Magnolia sub-store, and featured their top-of-the-line UN55C9000 LED-backlight 3D LCD TV. Best Buy had it on sale for $6,299 and the demo was running a clip from Monsters vs. Aliens from Samsung’s BD-C6900 3D Blu-ray player. A comfy couch rounded out the picture.

The demo was running nicely, except that only one pair of Samsung 3D glasses was available for viewing, and it was tethered via a long cable to a stand behind the couch. That didn’t work out so well for the four people standing there when I arrived – we were all jockeying for the same pair of glasses.

Over in the Best Buy TV aisles, I found Panasonic’s TC-P50VT20 50-inch 3D plasma on an end-of-aisle shelf with not much room around it to watch the 3D demo, and no place to sit. It was on sale for $2,199. Next to the TV was a locked plexiglass box with two pairs of Panasonic active shutter glasses, and I had to hunt down a sales associate to open the box so I could squat on my knees (not too comfortable) and watch a 3D travelogue of Rome.

What caught my eye below the Panasonic plasma was an advertised special for Samsung’s BD-C6900 Blu-ray player, even though Panasonic’s BDT-350 was clearly running the show. No one seemed to be paying any attention to this discrepancy until I pointed it out to the sales associate who procured my glasses. He then quickly yanked the sign, but didn’t replace it with another. Nor was there any mention of the specially-priced Panasonic  3D TV, glasses, and Blu-ray player ‘bundle’ to be found.

Well, that doesn’t look right…

Around the corner, there was another small theater set up, this time showcasing a Samsung 46-inch 3D LCD TV (I didn’t check to see which model). It, too, was running clips from Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D…except that the clips weren’t in 3D, they were 2D.

The fellow sitting on the leather couch behind me, watching through a pair of Samsung 3D glasses, seemed blissfully unaware of this fact until I mentioned it. I watched him fidget with the glasses for almost five minutes until I finally tipped him off, after which he tossed them on the couch and walked away in disgust, muttering “…I wondered why it didn’t look like 3D.”

I wandered back over to the Magnolia section, where a Panasonic 65-inch plasma was running a variety of HD video clips and advertising (of all things) Mitsubishi’s Laser VUE rear-projection TVs. (Wonder how Panasonic feels about that?) I was searching for the last 3D demo in the store – a Panasonic  TC-P50VT25 plasma set hanging on the wall.

Well, I found it, except that there were no 3D glasses available for viewing. But that didn’t matter as it turned out, because the TV was only showing 2D coverage of the World Cup. The irony of this was the empty Panasonic stand positioned in front of the TV with a placard that said, “You have to experience TV in 3D!” and exhorted me to try on a pair of 3D glasses to get the full Panasonic 3D experience. OK, so where were the glasses, exactly? And where was ESPN’s 3D World Cup video feed? Who dropped the ball here? (Sorry, bad pun…)

All in all, it was a pretty lame exhibition of 3D by Best Buy. Demo #1 had but a single pair of glasses available, while demo #2 was set up in a crowded area where no one could watch and you needed to pick a lock to get at the glasses. Demo #3 wasn’t even showing 3D content in the first place, and demo #4 was completely missing in action.

So…tell me, how is a consumer supposed to make an educated 3D TV buying decision under these circumstances?

3D TVs: Not Selling like Hotcakes?

Thinking about buying a 3D TV? You might be wise to sit on your hands for a while longer, because you’ll save a few hundred dollars and get more equipment at the checkout line to show for your patience.

Sunday’s Best Buy insert showed a Panasonic 3D TV package that includes the TC-P50VT20 3D plasma TV (comes with one pair of glasses, PLUS an extra two pairs of active shutter glasses, PLUS Geek Squad delivery and setup, all for $2249.96. That supposedly reflects a $700 savings over full list price. (The extra two pairs of glasses are valued at $300).

A few months ago, Panasonic announced a 3D bundle of the TC-P50VT20, one pair of glasses, and their BDT-300 3D Blu-ray player ($399.00) for $2,899, exclusively at Best Buy. That package likely ran out of gas quickly because there are only a handful of 3D Blu-ray discs available to watch right now.

So Best Buy’s new deal shifts focus to ESPN’s 3D coverage of the World Cup soccer matches, which started on June 11. All fine and dandy, but the ‘catch’ is that some cable TV customers will have to upgrade to newer Samsung, Pace, Motorola, and Cisco set-top boxes to receive the ESPN 3D channel – it can’t be done on older set-tops. (And good luck finding out exactly where and if ESPN 3D pops up in your service area!) UPDATE: Comcast is carrying the ESPN 3D signal in the 1080i side-by-side format, encoded as MPEG2 @ 18 Mb/s.

Samsung and Best Buy may have put together an even better deal. For $2769, you can get a UN55C7000 55-inch 240Hz LCD TV (LED backlit, of course) PLUS a BD-C6900 Blu-ray player, PLUS a 3D starter kit (two pairs of AS glasses and a copy of Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D), PLUS the Geek Squad delivery and setup as before. Don’t need a 55-inch screen? Substitute a UN40C7000 40-inch LCD 3D TV, and the price drops to $1799.

The 3D ‘kit’ is all yours for about $2800 bucks.

‘New kid on the block’ HH Gregg (at least, new in eastern Pennsylvania) has the same deal on the 55-inch set, or you can go with a 46-inch model for $2139. (They don’t mention anything about installation and setup, though.) Sixth Avenue Electronics also has the 55-inch and 46-inch packages, and will do free delivery and installation on both.

The Sears Sunday flier states that you can get the BD-C6900 BD player and the 3D starter kit free with the purchase of any Samsung 3D TV, which might be the best deal of all. They’ve priced the 46-inch LN46C750 3D TV (CCFL backlight) at $1529, while Samsung’s PN-50C7000 3D plasma TV is tagged at $1799.

Imagine that. We’re barely three months from all those big 3D product launches in New York, and prices have already started dropping like a stone. To make matters even more interesting, XpanD announced a few months ago at the NAB show that they plan to introduce universal ‘learning’ active shutter glasses to the marketplace later this year, which will directly impact the sales of proprietary AS glasses.

These bundled prices make you wonder about the real value of the glasses and Blu-ray players. In a business where margins are very tight, accessories such as glasses, cables, and even installation services are very important to the bottom line. Both the Panasonic and Samsung BD players list for $400, but my guess is that neither is selling very well right now: Hence, Panasonic’s decision to de-emphasize the player and Samsung’s ploy to throw theirs in as an extra to drive TV sales.

What will be telling is how much this year’s World Cup 3D coverage drives TV sales. You may recall that the World Cup did little or nothing to stimulate sales of HDTVs four years ago because Asian TV manufacturers overlooked an obvious fact: World Cup fanatics in Europe prefer to watch matches in pubs and taverns with their pals – not at home.

While ESPN is to be commended for making a substantial effort and investment to produce 3D coverage, it’s unfortunate that one of the least-appealing sports to Americans (historically speaking) is the focus of this coverage and not something like baseball, or basketball (NBA Finals), or even tennis.

What happens after July 11, when the Cup tournament concludes? How much 3D coverage will be available to drive TV sales throughout the summer?

Apparently not very much, based on the announcements made to date. And that means we’re likely to see even bigger discounts on 3D TV packages by September.

(By the way, none of the package deals I mentioned includes an HDMI cable. Hey, retailers have to make a buck someplace!)

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