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It’s Premature To Write Off Picture Tubes

I’ve been reading, with no pleasure, about the demise of the TV manufacturing industry as I’ve known it.

Among recent headlines: Thomson’s pending TV merger with China’s TCL; Philips turning from producer to purchaser of direct-view TV receivers; and Sony’s intention to phase out production of Trinitron picture tubes.

They, and many others, see the future of television as being in one form or another of thin flat screen (as opposed to flat-faced conventional picture tubes) and projection. And I can understand why, given the European focus of the first two mentioned above.

I recently visited London, a city I hadn’t been to in nearly 50 years, and of course I had to take a peek at the local electronics retail scene.

About all you could see were 4:3 and 16:9 flat-panel models, and the tube SKUs that were featured were all 16:9. LCDs far outnumbered plasma panel sets, and offered configurations I haven’t seen in stores in the States. I was kind of fond of a Samsung 17-inch widescreen LCD that was being offered for $1,400.

Its obvious from the displays that consumers “over there” are more willing than their counterparts here to pay the price for the extra value they feel they get from flat-panel TVs. The fact that the rooms in houses and apartments there are smaller than they are here may have something to do with it.

While I agree that as the years go by the industry will indeed find acceptable alternatives to conventional picture tubes, I was still somewhat taken aback by a piece I recently saw in the New York Times headlined “The Long Last Gasp of Tube-Based TV.” The article notes that R&D on analog TV has all but ended as makers focus on digital models, and that thin is in when it comes to future displays for digital.

While the piece is downbeat on plasma, and sees LCD, LCoS and maybe even organic diode displays along with thin-framed projection as candidates for market domination, it notes manufacturers are boosting the performance of plasma while lowering prices. It quotes one research firm as expecting 50-inch plasma digital TVs at just $3,000 by 2007 and cites another forecast of 30-inch LCD models at only $500 in the same time span.

But even these future bargains are going to seem shockingly high to price-aware American consumers. Today they can pick up a 32-inch direct-view analog for less than $300, and by that time should be able to purchase a digital version with a higher resolution display at about the same price.

I enjoy looking at these flat panels, and particularly admire the depth of color shown on some plasma models. But what they offer to me in terms of long-term television viewing falls well short of the performance of a quality 27-inch or 32-inch direct-view analog model being fed from a DVD player. Our more advanced flat-panel displays have too many annoying artifacts in their pictures and/or demonstrate lag when showing high-speed motion. And the panels offer practically nothing extra in terms of performance (except cost) when what’s wanted is a 13-inch or 19-inch set.

CEA’s preliminary outlook is for sales of flat-panel TVs to have hit 1.3 million in 2003 and jump to 1.7 million this year. That’s a long-long way from the 23 million direct-view (analog plus digital) models moved in 2003 and the 21 million CEA expects to be sold this year. Even if as many as 10 million flat panels sell in 2007, that would still leave more than half the annual demand to be filled by tube-type sets. I think it’s still much too early to start writing advance obits for picture tube technology.