Utopia Theater: Get It While the Gettin's Good

I lose my appetite viewing pie charts. Bar graphs leave me tipsy. But even a chronic mathlexic like me can see where the display business is heading, and it's not a pretty picture.

Sure, CEA-supplied statistics indicate rocket-propelled growth in HDTV sales, but only a few years into the DTV transition, prices are already beginning to sink. The downward spiral will only accelerate as new factories come online in China and elsewhere, churning out cheap sets.

Attracted by lower prices? When was the last time you flew? Flying used to be pleasurable, even fun, before it became a price-driven industry. I remember flying transatlantic coach on American Airlines back in the 1980s. The plane was a roomy 747. Once the plane reached cruising altitude, you got to eat a decent meal with real silverware and wipe your face with a linen napkin in your comfortable seat. Later, they put out a decent deli buffet at the back of the plane. It was a party atmosphere, in part because the flight attendants got paid fair and growing wages, and they saw pensions in their futures.

Today, you sit crammed in a much smaller plane with legroom suitable strictly for a double amputee, and you're lucky to get a Styrofoam box containing a steamed Styrofoam hamburger. Usually you get a bag of peanuts. If you can afford to fly domestic first class, you get something only marginally better than what coach used to be like. I recently flew from Miami to Newark first class and there was no meal!

Thanks to the price-driven nature of the industry, flight attendants and even pilots have been forced to accept wage and benefit cuts and pensions are evaporating. Party hearty? Not any more!

What does all this have to do with HDTV? Pricing pressures may very well create an analogous situation to what's happening in the airline industry. As I pointed out in this column recently, the days of the deluxe, maximum-performance CRT-based RPTV are over. Even if you're smart enough to want one, and you're willing to pay for it, manufacturers can't afford to make them because only cheap CRT sets continue to sell in quantity. The CRT has been assigned to the back of the bus.

"Big deal," I hear some of you say, "that's yesterday's technology." Guess what's next to fall by the techno-wayside? Rear-projection microdisplays—LCD, LCoS, and DLP. That's right—and those are hardly "yesterday's technology."

Within a few years, even companies that make and sell lots of them today predict that microdisplays will be a thing of the past and before they go, prices will drop and quality and performance will, of necessity, decline.

For now, because they're priced at a "sweet spot" between CRT-based RPTVs and flat-panel LCD and plasma sets, the market is hot, there's plenty of competition, and quality and performance are high.

Even Sharp, champion of the flat-panel LCD, recently got into the DLP RPTV business. Why? Mike Troetti, executive VP of the Consumer Electronics Group, explained it at a recent round-table discussion with journalists during at outing at Shea Stadium before a New York Mets game. For now, he explained, large-screen flat panels are priced beyond the means of most large-screen buyers, and Sharp wants to compete in that lucrative segment of the market—until prices drop.

The "getting is good" right now if you're interested in rear projection DLP, LCD, or LCoS, as it was for rear-projection CRT a few years ago. But once flat-panel prices fall to within striking distance, the RPTV microdisplay market will become price-driven, regardless of technology, and quality and performance will drop—even if you're willing to spend more for a higher-performance set. So if you're into DLP or LCoS, the next generation of 1080p RPTVs may be the apogee before pricing pressures force a performance and quality decline. Sounds familiar, right?

This scenario is supported by research that shows people want flat-panel TVs. Never mind that the same research shows that most buyers don't bother to hang the sets on the wall! They end up putting them on a stand or table that is at least as deep as an RPTV. So why do consumers lust after thin flat-panel TVs? Maybe for the same reason a majority of Americans apparently support repealing the estate tax (excuse me, the "death" tax), even though they never benefit from it, and they'll end up having to make up the revenue shortfall while the ultra-wealthy catch a break. In other words, because they're irrational.

That leaves at least two technologies, LCD and PDP (plasma), to duke it out for future dominance in the large-screen display business, with SED and OLED as questionable competitors.

No wonder both camps have been busy courting journalists and plying them with propaganda explaining why their technology is best—and best-suited for the future. Personally, I don't care for the picture produced by either LCD or PDP so far, in part because I am not fixated on "thin." I recently lost 25 pounds—I'm now thin, so I don't have to live thin through my television. But if I had to choose one, I'd make it plasma. It looks better to my eyes.

Just as price rather than quality now drives the airline industry, price and "thin," not picture quality, will drive the display market. Those of us willing to pay more for higher quality have to hope that, in the future, there will be manufacturers willing to accommodate our needs as there are in the audio industry.