Posts Tagged ‘Plasma’

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.

It’s Just Not That Complicated!

In a survey guaranteed not to bring smiles to the faces of TV manufacturers, 14,000 TV owners around the globe are downplaying the importance of Internet connectivity and 3D capability as they decide to purchase a new TV.

The DisplaySearch study, which is summarized here, shows that 3D capability runs a distant third behind LED backlights and LAN or WiFi connections in order of importance, and that order of importance is remarkably consistent worldwide, except in Indonesia (3D was ranked #1, just ahead of LED backlights) and India (Internet connectivity and 3D functionality were close behind LED backlights).

In some countries, 3D was one of the weakest drivers of the TV replacement cycle, ranking near the bottom of the list in Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. LED backlighting was three times more important than 3D in the USA, and about twice as important as Internet connectivity. In urban China, 3D commanded about 25% of the interest of LED backlighting, while in Russia, the number was closer to 10%.

Indonesians are apparently contrarians. They ranked 3D capability as “most important” of all three features, edging out LED backlights by about 20%. In India, the three drivers were almost equally weighted, while in France, Internet connectivity outranked both LEDs and 3D.

This must be the season of studies! DisplaySearch’s parent company NPD also released a report last week that stated 15 percent of U.S. consumers reported using a Blu-ray player in the prior six months to March 2011, up from 9 percent the prior year. By way of comparison, 57 percent of U.S consumers reported using a standard (red laser) DVD player in 2010, unchanged from 2009.

The NPD summary doesn’t break down how, exactly, the study group “used a Blu-ray player” in the six month period. Was it for streaming Netflix? Watching Hulu? Watching rented or purchased Blu-ray movies? We don’t know.

Other interesting tidbits: 49 percent of Sony PlayStation 3 owners are viewing Blu-ray movies on their consoles at least once a month, and Y-Y sales of Blu-ray players have increased 16%.

In their press release, NPD makes the case that sales of Blu-ray discs are starting to offset the decline in DVD sales. Keep in mind that NPD identified 116 million current physical disc buyers in the United States (not sure how they made that determination), down from 128 million in 2009 – a decline of about 10%. The 26 million Blu-ray buyers ‘offsetting’ that number amount to about 22% of the ‘current’ total.

The most interesting part of the study was summarized near the end, where it was reported 50% of consumers who intend to buy a Blu-ray player in the next six months said that they were primarily interested in using said players to view “available subscription video download services” (read: Netflix) as opposed to buying and/or renting Blu-ray movies.

If NPD had told us how respondents were using their Blu-ray players, we might have enough information to spot a trend. Alas, we can only assume that streaming is becoming a bigger driver of Blu-ray player sales than the discs themselves. 50% is a substantial number!

Even so, both surveys may tie together nicely. The lower levels of interest in Internet-connected TVs in the first survey may be due to the fact that late model TVs can add Internet connectivity a lot less expensively with a connected Blu-ray player.

Why replace a perfectly good 5- or 6-year-old LCD or plasma TV when you can ‘soup it up’ for another $125 – $150? That’s exactly what I did with my 2008-vintage Panasonic TH-42PZ80U 1080p plasma TV, installing a Panasonic DMP-BD85 connected Blu-ray player to replace an older red laser DVD player. I watch about 1-2 Blu-ray movies per month on it at most, and it streams Netflix quite nicely.

There’s no question we’re seeing a big change in how movies and TV shows are acquired and watched, and the playing field is tilting more towards streaming with every passing month. This change affects everyone from movie studios (some of which have been announcing sizable layoffs in recent weeks) to cable companies (Gen Y viewers are more likely to cut their cable ‘cords’ and rely on free OTA TV and broadband streaming) and retailers of packaged media (Wal-Mart and Best Buy have scaled back the size of their CD, DVD, and Blu-ray departments in the past year, and of course, Blockbuster went into bankruptcy last year and has been closing stores left and right).

In the meantime, I’m still waiting for that consumer survey that really drills down to see (a) just how consumers are using Blu-ray players, (b) what they think of renting and purchasing packaged media in general, (c) if they are seriously considering ‘cutting the cord’ – or have cut it already, and (d) if and how they supplement streaming video and YouTube with free over-the-air digital TV and HDTV.

Of course, that survey would have to be conducted by an organization that is primarily interested in finding out the truth, and letting the facts point to a conclusion instead of jumping to one like the DEG did recently, or advancing an agenda as the CEA has been doing.

Sigh…

Reading Between The Lines

In a report released yesterday, the Consumer Electronics Association states that 10% of American households are either ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ to cancel pay TV services this year, while an additional 14% are either ‘somewhat likely’ or ‘somewhat unlikely’ to cut the cord. 76% of those surveyed were in the ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ group.

While those numbers should give some pay TV operators a little cause for concern – maybe as an incentive to offer simpler, basic channel packages at lower costs – the CEA report then veered off in another direction.

The report, which you can read here, states that only 8% of all U.S. households rely exclusively on over-the-air (OTA) TV reception, a number that was immediately disputed by the national Association of Broadcasters, according to a story in Multichannel News.

The MCN story quoted CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro as saying, “Contrary to the National Association of Broadcasters’ assertions, antenna sales are falling and cord-cutters are not shifting to over-the-air television but rather to the Internet. The only cord being cut these days is the one to the antenna.”

NAB’s spokesman Dennis Wharton was quick to respond. “CEA has zero credibility when it comes to calculating over-the-air TV viewership. Knowledge Networks has stated that over-the-air exclusive homes are more than 14% and rising. We trust an unbiased research firm over a survey paid for by CEA,” he replied.

Both my own experience and national news stories about cord-cutting have clearly shown that free, over-the-air TV is a key component of the cord-cutting experience. Why? Because it’s doggone difficult to watch sports and prime time TV shows in HDTV over a typical Internet connection, that’s why! And of course, OTA TV is free to viewers. So it is often combined with broadband access as part of the kiss-off to Comcast or Time Warner.

As it turns out, CEA has an obvious bias here. (Wow – this has been a bad week for objective research!) In a press release that came out earlier today, CEA announced that its Innovation Movement and Small Business Council would bring a ‘small business message’ to Capitol Hill.

The message? That small businesses “…run a gauntlet of new laws, new regulations and new costs that can put them out of business. Instead of imposing additional burdens, policymakers should be creating small businesses to invest, expand and create additional jobs.”

So where’s the bias? In the fifth paragraph of the press release, CEA states:

“Online, CEA’s Innovation Movement will be hosting a Virtual Lobby Day for its 114,000-plus members to encourage them to act on one key issue affecting small businesses: incentive spectrum auctions. CEA Innovation Movement members will be called to ask their congressional representatives to authorize the FCC to move forward with “incentive auctions,” which would provide broadcasters the ability to repurpose their frequencies through a spectrum auction in exchange for proceeds from auction revenues. Broadcasters could participate on a voluntary basis and purchasers could redeploy the spectrum for wireless broadband that could generate $33 billion for the U.S. Treasury and would allow endless opportunities for innovation in small business. “

A-HA! Apparently the primary motivation of this Innovation Movement is to pressure congress into selling off more broadcast TV spectrum. How, exactly, does that benefit a so-called ‘small business’ like mine? Seems to me such auctions would be far more useful Verizon and AT&T more than anyone else, and they’re as far removed from ‘small businesses’ as you can get.

According to Shapiro, “Using huge swaths of wireless spectrum to deliver TV to homes no longer makes economic sense. Congress should pass legislation to allow for incentive auctions so free market dynamics can find the best purposes for underused broadcast spectrum, such as wireless broadband.”

OK, connect the dots with me: (1) CEA’s members want more spectrum for broadband and other WiFi gadgets. (2) They think terrestrial broadcasters are vulnerable now. (3) So, CEA commissions a study that shows only while a small number of people are dropping or planning to drop pay TV service, these cord-cutters are NOT moving to over-the-air reception. No, they are instead turning to Internet-delivered video services. (4) Therefore, the country needs more bandwidth for broadband delivery of (among other things) video content, and less bandwidth for broadcast TV programs.

And I thought the recent Digital Entertainment Group survey of 3D TV trends was self-serving!  While I have no issue with the small number of cord-cutters the CEA identified, I simply cannot believe these ‘cutters’ would turn away from free HDTV programming for their new LCD and plasma TVs.

The CEA’s bias is clear now. In the last decade, they fought the digital TV tuner mandate, calling it an undue burden on TV manufacturers. Once the DTV transition got rolling, however, CEA did a flip-flop and showered praise on the FCC’s decision to move to a digital TV future, bringing free HDTV to millions of American homes.

Now, CEA has flipped again and says that free OTA TV is a dinosaur, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history in favor of wireless broadband in the UHF television band (a concept that is still on shaky ground technically).

I’m surprised the folks at CEA haven’t gotten whiplash from constantly reversing their positions. But it’s pretty clear now who’s really behind the curtains, calling the shots for CEA and also putting pressure on the FCC these days.

The question is; how many Americans still care that they can watch free HDTV anymore?

I’ll bet it’s a lot more than 8% of all U.S. households…

James Cameron Says Half-Resolution 3D Is ‘Good Enough’ for the Home (Updated 4/28/11)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some readers have taken exception with my description of James Cameron’s statements pertaining to the half-resolution side-by-side and top+bottom 3D formats. Cameron did not endorse passive 3D at NAB; his comments below were limited only to these two frame-compatible 3D delivery systems. Accordingly, I have changed the headline to more accurately reflect his statements.

 

At the NAB show a few weeks ago, James Cameron and Vince Pace announced a new company to assist cinematographers and videographers in the production of 3D movies and TV shows by developing, selling, and leasing 3D camera systems.

 

Cameron feels that in the not-too-distant future, all feature film and TV series production could be mastered in 3D with 2D versions extracted from the digital files. The company has already developed a system for simultaneous 3D/2D production at live events, known as Shadow. It was used during the recent CBS broadcast of the Masters golf tournament.

 

While none of this is earth-shattering news, something Cameron said later during the question and answer period bears mentioning. In response to a question about carrying 3D over conventional broadcast channels, Cameron replied by first describing the side-by-side and top+bottom frame-compatible 3D formats, both of which sacrifice resolution.

 

Side-by-side is used exclusively on 1080i 3D broadcasts, resulting in left eye and right eye images that are anamorphically squeezed into the same video frame. For side-by-side 3D, each image winds up with 960×1080 resolution, while top+bottom images are re-sized to 1280×360. The lost pixels must be interpolated when each frame is anamorphically stretched back to its original size, which is why neither 3D system looks particularly sharp when compared to 3D Blu-ray discs.

 

After Cameron correctly identified side-by-side and top+bottom as being the only practical systems right now for broadcast, he then went on to say, “…full HD 3D would require a doubling of bandwidth, but it’s not necessary right now…you only need full HD for each eye for cinema-sized displays. You don’t need it for home displays. That’s my opinion right now.”

 

You can watch Cameron’s response here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI8OmPdSfBw&NR=1

 

That comment opened quite a few eyes, particularly mine. Here is the most influential filmmaker of his time when it comes to advanced technology, saying that full HD isn’t needed in the home, and that half-resolution 3D is adequate for now.

 

Really?

 

What about frame-packed 3D Blu-ray discs? I’m sure the Digital Entertainment Group would like to hear Cameron’s perspective on that one. So would any manufacturer of active-shutter 3D TVs. So would any person who just purchased a 3D TV measuring 46 inches and larger.

 

What about passive 3D TVs, which throw away half the vertical resolution from any 3D content? Why would you want to watch less-than-full HD 3D movies and TV shows on one of these sets and just make the problem worse?

 

I would think that Cameron would be strongly advocating for full HD across the board, particularly since one company (Sisivel) already showed a system at NAB 2011 that would accommodate two full-resolution 1280×720 views in a standard 6 MHz channel using H.264 AVC coding. Here’s a picture of what it looks like:

And that is how you pack two full-resolution 1280x720p 3D images into one standard 6 Mhz broadcast...with the help of a little MPEG4 encoding, of course.

The Sisivel system keeps the left eye frame intact; that is the normal 2D view. The right eye frame is broken up into three smaller tiles that are stitched together in the decoder/receiver. It’s not a new trick and is relatively simple to pull off with today’s powerful software and hardware.

 

Granted, ATSC broadcasters do not use MPEG4 encoding. But that’s not the point: Sisivel tried a different approach and came up with a way to handle 720p 3D content without sacrificing any resolution, something that ought to be of interest to ESPN’s 3D content producers who could deliver this format right now over cable and DBS systems.

 

MPEG2 compression systems have also gotten a lot more efficient, perhaps 100% better than they were a decade ago. While it’s not feasible to put a pair of 1920x1080i full-frame signals into a 6 MHz channel, it can be done now with 720p, based on the demos I saw at NAB.

 

No one should ‘settle’ for lower quality 3D if they are simultaneously trying to get the format to take off. There are plenty of sharp technical people out there that are coming up with creative ways to pack multiple HD programs into standard TV channels without compromising image quality. Stay tuned!

One Size Fits All

Yesterday, Panasonic and XPand announced that they have developed M-3DI, which is intended to be a new interoperability standard for active shutter 3D glasses.

 

M-3DI is actually a communications protocol used to signal and sequence the glasses in step with the rapid flashing of left eye and right eye 3D images. Until now, you couldn’t use one manufacturer’s brand of active shutter glasses to view another manufacturer’s TV, due to different signaling codes. Panasonic AS glasses do work with 2010-vintage Samsung 3D TVs, but that was the exception.

 

This incompatibility problem was one of the reasons consumers cited for holding off on 3D TV purchases last year. It will still be an issue for Samsung TVs in 2011, as the new line employs the Bluetooth communications protocol instead of infrared linking.

XPand announced last year that they would come out with so-called “universal” active shutter glasses that could learn IR signaling codes, just like a universal TV remote control does. But this announcement takes things a step further by ensuring greater support among multiple manufacturers, including Changhong Electric Co., Ltd., FUNAI Electric Co., Ltd., Hisense Electric Co., Ltd., Hitachi Consumer Electronics Co., Ltd., Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Seiko Epson Corporation, SIM2 Multimedia S.p.A. and ViewSonic Corporation.

 

What really caught my eye in the press release was this statement: “The technology will let consumers enjoy the immersive 3D experience across all types of compatible 3D displays as well as at movie theaters, with a single pair of 3D active-shutter eyewear.”

 

Currently, movie theaters do not use active shutter viewing systems as the cost of glasses would be prohibitive – and they’d break down pretty quickly. Apparently, Panasonic has plans to expand into that arena, possibly with their line of high-brightness digital cinema DLP projectors, but we’ve not heard any details previously.

 

The M-3DI standard will also cover active shutter eyewear for computer monitors and front projectors for home theater and commercial AV applications.  But the big question remains: Will the other major players in active shutter 3D (Samsung and Sony) come aboard?

 

Rumors have abounded that Sony may add passive 3D TVs to their product line in the near future, something that will no doubt be influenced by LG’s success – or lack of it – with their new passive Cinema 3D TV line.

 

Regardless, this announcement is long overdue. And Samsung and Sony really ought to join the parade if only to help 3D TV sales pick up some momentum.