Olevia Plays in the Major Leagues

This morning, Syntax-Brillian announced a partnership with AEG to become a “Founding Partner” at a number of AEG venues across the country, including L.A. Live, STAPLES Center, Sprint Center, and Citizen’s Bank Arena. The multimillion dollar sponsorship agreement will see Olevia-branded LCD and RPTV displays integrated throughout the venues, in digital signage and hospitality applications. And of course, the Olevia brand will be display all over the place.

Syntax-Brillian has accomplished a lot in a relatively short time to get broad name recognition for their new brand. A combination of marketing and good product distribution has made the Olevia name more familiar to consumers. This major league marketing effort now lets them play toe to toe with the big guys like Samsung and Sharp. And given the fact that sports is one of the leading motivators for consumers to step up to HDTV, sports arenas are a natural spot to place their marketing bets.

Every year, I see many new HDTV companies at trade shows such as CEDIA and CES, and they all have shiny new product lines and a name nobody has hear of before. Talking to their representatives, I often find that they are all set to make a mark on the American market, just as soon as they find retail distribution of their products. This is actually a very difficult hurdle to clear. The fact that Syntax-Brillian has made that step and is able to make a marketing deal on this scale demonstrates that while it’s hard to launch a new brand in this business, it’s not impossible.

HDTV Prices: Going Down

A story in DigiTimes reports that the Photonics Industry Technology & Development Association (PIDA) has predicted that prices for 32″ LCD HDTV panels will decline 7.6%. That’s not their prediction for all of 2007; it’s just for the first quarter. And 37″ panel prices are expected to fall 6.1%. PIDA estimates that the average selling price for the 32″ panels will be $300, and 42″ panels will average less than $600 (down from about $700 just last September).

This certainly flies in the face of the “slower decline” hopes for HDTV pricing that has been voiced by some major manufacturers. The fact is that the 32″ panels have truly become a commodity already, as many of the big brands have turned to the LCD factories in Taiwan and China for panels in this size range. The fact that 42″ panels are dropping this low already is a bit more surprising. If PIDA’s predictions are on target, we should expect 42″ LCD HDTVs to routinely cost $1,200 or less by the summer.

Let HDTV Freedom Ring!

DRM: it stands for “digital rights management” but the definition is really “copy protection“. We are currently coping with heavy-handed implementations of protection at a number of levels. Why can’t your iTunes music play on an MP3 player that is not an iPod? DRM. Why will some high-definition DVD players produce a 1080p signal only over an HDMI connection, and not a component video connection? DRM. And there’s something called the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” that makes it illegal to try to find ways to work around the copy protection.

It’s a complex issue. I am both a consumer of copyrighted material and a producer, so perhaps that makes it easier for me to see both sides. On the one hand, you have the rights of the content creators and publishers who have invested valuable time, money, and creative skill; in the case of a blockbuster movie, this can amount to millions and millions of dollars. This money is spent employing people and buying materials and services that provide additional jobs. On the other hand, you have the rights of consumers to enjoy the content that they have “bought” in any way that they choose. One of the favorite analogies is the paperback book; if you buy a book, you can read it in your home, or in the car, or on an airplane, or at the beach. Why shouldn’t you be able to do the same with music or a movie?

There are signs that the balance on copy protection may be slowly shifting back in favor of the consumer, as a result of market pressure. This is exactly what happened to computer software 15 to 20 years ago, when Lotus 1-2-3 was one of the most popular productivity programs. It was copy protected, but Lotus spent so much time dealing with support problems that prevented legitimate owners from using the program that they eventually had to stop using it. Last year, we saw the Sony debacle with their “root kit” protection scheme on some music CDs. And now comes word that some major music publishers are starting to experiment with unprotected downloadable tunes.

There’s an organization that is working to achieve a better balance between producer and consumer rights for digital media. It’s the Digital Freedom Campaign, and you can go to their Web site at www.digitalfreedom.org to find out more about them and to sign a petition supporting their goals. As they state on their home page, “the Digital Freedom campaign is dedicated to defending the rights of artists, innovators, creators and consumers to use lawful technology free of unreasonable government restrictions and without fear of costly lawsuits.” As we enter the new era of downloadable HD movies, high-definition personal video recorders, and content sharing across home networks, it’s more important than ever to make sure that reasonable rules and standards are in place.

Netflix Streams Movies, for Free!

Netflix is a phenomenon; there’s no other way to put it. More than 5 million people subscribe to the service that has done such a good job using your mailbox as a replacement for the video rental store, that Blockbuster has now been compelled to match the service. Netflix offers more than 70,000 titles on DVD with no late fees for a flat monthly fee, and they even pay the postage both ways.

Now Netflix is disrupting the whole movie rental market again, by giving away movies for free. Subscribers can now stream any of 1,000 movies over the Internet, and watch them on a desktop computer, laptop, or even their television if it is connected to the Internet. And at no extra cost beyond your regular monthly subscription. You get six hours of viewing time per month for each DVD that you can rent from Netflix. If you have the one disc plan, you get six hours. If you are on the three disc plan, you can watch 18 hours a month online. That’s like getting a dozen extra movies for free.

And these are not downloads; they are streaming video so you don’t need to have an enormous hard drive on which to store them. You can watch the same movie over and over, or just sample different ones to find one you like; there is no limit on the number of titles, just the viewing time. The service includes fast forward and rewind features, so you can watch part of a movie today, and finish it up at another time: later today, tomorrow, next week, or next month. The video quality is adjusted to match the bandwidth of your Internet connection; you’ll need high-speed broadband in order to get the best quality.

I’ve been saying for a long time that the Internet is going to change everything, and this is just what I’m talking about. Netflix now gives its subscribers free access to their own private movie channel over IPTV, letting them watch what they want, when they want, where they want, and at no additional cost beyond their existing subscription. And I suspect that we will discover more delightful surprises as video entertainment and the Internet continue to be combined by creative business like Netflix.

50″ Plasma Two-for-One on Aisle 3

I’ve written lately about the brave talk from manufacturers about how flat panel HDTV prices are not going to decline as fast in 2007 as they did in 2006, and how they are whistling in the dark. The market will determine the pricing, and if supplies exceed demand as it appears likely that they will, then prices will fall. We’re not even through the first month of 2007, and already we’ve seen advertised prices for some models drop by hundreds of dollars since New Year’s Day.

But there’s one price drop that anyone with a pulse is likely to find surprising. Pioneer has a reputation for making some of the best plasma HDTVs on the market. Their PDP-5016HD is a 50″ Wide XGA panel with 1365 by 768 resolution, so it is capable of displaying all the pixels in a 720p image. (Not all plasma panels marketed as “HDTV” can do that.) The surprising price drop on this model is that Pioneer is offering to give them away for free! Yes, that’s a 100% price drop.

What’s the catch? You have to buy one of their top-of-the-line Elite PRO-FHD1 models as well. This 50″ model has 1080p resolution. So buy one Pioneer 1080p 50″ plasma HDTV, get one 720p 50″ plasma HDTV free. Here’s the announcement from the Pioneer Web site:

Consumer Plasma Panel Promotion

This is a limited time promotion starting January 8, 2007 until supplies last
or March 31, 2007, whichever occurs first.

Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc., in conjunction with Participating Authorized Elite Dealers, is pleased to announce a unique Consumer Plasma Panel Promotion.

For a limited time only, purchase a Pioneer® Elite® Model PRO-FHD1 from a participating authorized Elite Dealer in the 50 United States and receive a 50” High Definition Plasma from that same dealer, model Pioneer PDP-5016HD, for FREE. This is for consumer purchases only.

Both models must be delivered to Consumer by Dealer from Dealer’s inventory.

Not all Pioneer authorized Elite Dealers may be participating in this promotion. Pioneer will not be fulfilling any free PDP-5016HD units directly to the Consumer.

Pioneer Elite Dealer’s are NOT authorized to sell Elite products via Internet.

So you won’t find this deal on the Internet, but only at authorized Pioneer Elite Dealers, which generally means the more high-end stores. But if you’re in the market for a top end plasma anyway, now you can get one for the living room and a second for the den or bedroom at no extra cost. And I’m not willing to bet that this is the last blockbuster promotion we hear about in the next 11 months of 2007.

What I Saw at CES

As some of you may know, I’m co-host of a radio show that is broadcast on Wednesday nights at 8 PM Eastern, on WBAI-FM in New York City. The Personal Computer Show is the longest running computer show in the country, and I am honored that I get to be a part of it.

The show is available over the air, live as streaming audio over the Web, and as a downloadable podcast at www.pcradioshow2.org. Tonight’s broadcast is preempted by membership drive programming (WBAI is listener supported), but we recorded a show anyway for our podcast audience. In the second half hour, I discussed some of the major themes of what I saw at CES earlier this month. So if you’re interested in hearing some of my thoughts and observations, download the show and give it a listen. Let me know what you think by writing to me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com.

HD SuperBowl on More Cable

Last week, I mentioned the beef that some network affiliate station owners had with local cable services offering their HD programming without paying anything extra for it. And right now, if that station is affiliated with CBS, a lot of subscribers are very interested in a quick settlement to the problem… say, before February 4th. Not being able to get the SuperBowl in HD is a strongy motivating factor.

Well, Time Warner has reached an agreement with Sinclair Broadcasting. The cable company can carry Sinclair’s local HD broadcasts. This deal affects Time Warner subscribers in markets around the country, including Ohio, New York, and Maine.

It seems that sports programming really does drive HD content, as the customers apparently get more concerned about their cable system’s HD coverage as major events near, such as college bowl games and the SuperBowl. The conflict between the affiliate owners and cable companies shows that there are still a lot of details remaining to be ironed out as the world of television continues to evolve rapidly, and the question of who pays for what is going to be at the center of these disputes. As they say, follow the money.

Blue Movies May Sink Blu-Ray

Sony has announced that it will not let its Blu-Ray disc production subsidiary produce any “adult” titles. As it did with Betamax, it is not going to make it easy for pornography producers to publish on Blu-Ray. This comes on the heels of the announcement by many major porn publishers that they will be using the HD DVD format for their titles.

Now, whether or not you’re a customer of blue movies, this is an important development. It’s well known — though rarely discussed — that many technology advances have been driven by pornography. Videotape, CD-ROMs, and DVDs all owe a significant portion of their early success to the fact that they were used to distribute “adult entertainment” content. This provided a quick ramp up in production volumes, which helped lower costs of both the media and the players.

Blu-Ray already has a number of strikes against it; it’s more expensive, it’s harder to get, and the media is physically very different from standard DVDs. As much as some may not want to admit it, the fact that the adult entertainment market is choosing HD DVD over Blu-Ray could be another significant factor in deciding which format will ultimately prevail.

No Let Up in LCD Production

While the November and December retail wars were raging, the LCD manufacturers of the world saw orders decline. This is a normal seasonal fluctuation, as retailers scale back from the feeding frenzy of the holidays. But while orders are down, many manufacturers are looking to expand their production capacity even further for the coming years.

For example, CMO is one of the major Taiwanese LCD producers. Their new Gen 7.5 plant is set to start volume production soon; this size is well suited to make the 42″ models that are taking over from plasma at in that size segment. CMO also has a Gen 6 plant scheduled to come online at the end of this year, and is increasing production at its Gen 5 and Gen 5.5 plants. Meanwhile, Sharp has doubled the output of its Gen 8 plant to 30,000 substrates per month. The Taiwan company AUO has a new Gen 7.5 plant that is just starting volume production with a 10,000 substrate monthly capacity, which could eventually be expanded to 60,000 substrates per month.

All this production capacity costs tens of billions of dollars to create, so clearly these companies are betting that they will find buyers for their output. The big gamble is whether or not there will be enough buyers to maintain a profitable price point. If the manufacturers produce a surplus of panels, prices will have to fall further in order to attract more buyers.

We could well be entering another period of over-supply in the LCD industry, which is good news for consumers. The competition is not easing up, and we are certain to see new lows for LCD HDTV prices this year.

Sundance Online

Lots of people have the same complaint about IPTV as they do about broadcast television and cable: “500 channels and nothing’s on“. Well, if you’re looking for quality content for free on the Internet, you need look no further than the Sundance Film Festival’s site. Starting today, the festival will post complete short films as they debut. You will have until June 2007 to watch them.

This is an excellent example of being able to find high-quality entertainment content on the Web, and in this case, it’s all free. (You are invited to make a donation to the festival if you choose, but that’s on a separate part of the site.) As a fan of short films, I find that this is an excellent way to try out video on the Web; you only spend five to ten minutes on most of the films, and if one is not to your tastes, just try another.