Sony (NYSE:SNE), Sharp (PINK:SHCAY), and Panasonic (NYSE:PC)—once leaders in the HDTV business—have faced repeated losses that are largely blamed on woes in their TV divisions. Sony’s loss for the year is expected to come in at $2.9 billion, after eight consecutive years of losses in TV sales. Panasonic is warning of a staggering $10 billion loss amid calls that it must restructure its TV efforts to regain profitability. Sharp announced in January that it was cutting LCD panel output from its Sakai facility (where it produces 40-inch LCD TV displays) by half.
Ten years ago, it seemed as though TV makers were entering a golden age. Sales of high-priced flat-panel TVs tripled from 2000 to 2001. Profit margins were high, sets were flying from store shelves, and then things started going wrong.
There was no single overwhelming factor that contributed to the current state of affairs, but a series of issues—each a serious blow—combined to make the business of selling TVs a tough one, especially for the Japanese manufacturers who dominated the industry:
- The Japanese Yen has risen steadily against the U.S. dollar, especially in the past four years.
- Replacing a bulky, low-definition, and relatively small screen-size CRT television with a larger, flat-screen high-definition television was a huge jump in quality for consumers. Once they’d made the switch, new features haven’t had the same visceral impact, making upgrading again less compelling.
- Lower cost competition from “bargain brand” South Korean manufacturers such as LG and Samsung (PINK:SSNLF) went mainstream, while US-based Vizio rode the low-price wave to the top of the LCD TV sales charts.
- The recession hit the U.S. hard, making consumers cautious about buying nonessentials, especially expensive nonessentials like TVs.
- Japanese TV makers, anticipating the boom in TV sales would continue, invested in glass panel factories, leading to an oversupply that further lowered prices.
- Plasma displays (a category in which Panasonic invested heavily) has fallen out of favor with consumers. Other manufacturers, including Pioneer, Hitachi (NYSE:HIT), Philips (NYSE:PHG), and RCA, have abandoned the plasma TV market, which is predicted to shrink a further 38% by 2015.
Together, these factors have combined to drive down flat-screen TV prices, turning them from luxury goods to commodity products. In 2005, Sony was selling 40-inch Bravia LCD TVs for $4,000. Today you can pick up a 40-inch Sony Bravia at Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) for under $700.
More bells and whistles
Manufacturers have tried repeatedly to offer must-have new features that they hoped would trigger a repeat of a decade ago, when consumers replaced their bulky CRT televisions en masse with new flat screens. Higher display-refresh rates to make sports programming sharper, bigger display sizes, LED backlighting, and 3D capability have all failed to become must-have features. So-called Smart TVs, with Internet connectivity and applications, were the big thing at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, but consumers still seem to be taking a wait and see approach.
Waiting in the wings are new ultra-high-definition panels such as the 4k standard (which offers 4,096 x 2,160 pixels resolution versus 1080p’s 1,920 x 1,080) being pushed by Sony and Toshiba. The plan is to wow consumers with crystal-clear displays, but these don’t offer nearly the same visual improvement as current HDTV sets did over standard-definition CRT TVs. And with cable companies already compressing HD content due to its high-data bandwidth, don’t expect them to be jumping on board to deliver 4k content to homes.
For now, Japanese TV producers are regrouping, reorganizing, cutting costs, and hoping a killer new feature like Smart TV or 4k display ushers in a new golden age of TV buying —and preferably a demand for premium quality, high-profit-margin sets.
South Korean manufacturers are holding steady —generally trading profitable and losing quarters for their TV businesses. Vizio remains the top selling brand in the U.S., and all the TV makers are watching to see if yet another competitor enters the space. If Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) rumored iTV set makes an appearance, it will almost certainly target the higher profit premium market and has the potential to be as disruptive as the iPhone was to the mobile phone market in 2007.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.