Samsung-LG Misstep on TV Screens Creates Opening for Sony

Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. are reworking their strategies for high-end TVs after spending billions of dollars on a new display technology that’s behind schedule and costs almost $10,000 a set.

The misstep by the Koreans has created an opening for Sony Corp., Sharp Corp. and Chinese maker Skyworth Digital Holdings Ltd. Those companies are introducing TVs using conventional liquid-crystal displays that offer resolutions rivaling the new technology for about half the price.

The world’s two biggest television makers have struggled to profitably manufacture sets with organic light-emitting diodes, which have a brighter and sharper picture than the LCDs used in most TVs. Though both companies said they would mass-market OLED TVs last year, LG’s first model, priced at 11 million won ($9,900), hit stores in South Korea in January and Samsung still isn’t selling one.

Samsung and LG are now pivoting, with plans to boost output of LCD sets to maintain their dominance of the industry. Sony, meanwhile, is seeking to capture a greater share of the market for ultra-high definition TVs -- forecast to rise sevenfold by 2015 -- by expanding its range of LCD sets.

“Samsung and LG both misjudged the ultra-high definition market,” said Jeon Byung Ki, an analyst at E*Trade Korea Co. in Seoul. “Now they’re thinking they may have to stick with LCD technology for a while.”

Spokesmen for both Samsung and LG said their companies remain committed to OLEDs, yet they will expand their offerings of ultra-high-definition sets using LCD technology.

‘Taxi Driver’

Worldwide shipments of ultra-high-definition LCD panels will probably rise to 2.6 million this year from 63,000 last year, researcher DisplaySearch said.

Sony is moving into the niche between conventional LCDs and OLEDs with a technology it dubs 4K. The world’s No. 3 TV maker last month started selling a 55-inch set for $5,000, and in November it introduced an 84-inch model for $25,000.

The Tokyo-based company has lost money on TVs for the last nine years. Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai said in January that TVs offering ultra-high resolution were part of his effort to “surprise and delight” consumers.

Sony’s board is discussing a proposal by hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb to sell as much as 20 percent of the entertainment business and focus on electronics. Hirai has vowed to make the TV division profitable in the year ending March 2014, selling 16 million sets. Samsung delivered more than 51 million flat-screen TVs worldwide in 2012 and LG sold about 30 million.

Spurring Demand

Sony, which offers its studio’s films in ultra-high-definition 4K to cinemas, is now making films available for buyers of its TVs. The company is converting some older films, including “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Taxi Driver,” to download to 4K Bravia sets starting this year.

“Sony is taking actions to spur demand for its 4K lineup,” said Hisakazu Torii, an analyst for DisplaySearch in Tokyo. “The two South Korean makers will have to offer 4K sets to tap the trend, and they will likely move fast.”

Hong Kong-based Skyworth has spotted the same opportunity. The company in November released four models with screens as wide as 84 inches costing as much as 100,000 yuan ($16,300). Last month, Skyworth added a 39-inch set costing about 7,000 yuan. Sharp, Japan’s third-largest TV producer, unveiled new 4K models under the Aquos brand yesterday.

Samsung and LG sell almost half of all TVs worldwide. Samsung had 28 percent of the industry’s revenue last year and LG had 15 percent, according to DisplaySearch. Yet total global shipments fell 1 percent, the first decline ever, the researcher said.

$36,000 TV

The Korean companies each have only one ultra-HD LCD model on the market. LG introduced an 84-inch set last July that’s available in 100 countries for about $22,000. Models measuring 65 and 55 inches may be released later this year, according to the Seoul-based company. Samsung offers an 85-inch set in South Korea and Europe for about $36,000 and says it will add two smaller models next month.

Samsung and LG bet on OLEDs because the screens use less power and are thinner than conventional LCD models while offering a better image. Both companies showed 55-inch prototypes at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that were thinner than Apple Inc.’s iPad.

Yet the companies haven’t been able to boost production enough to achieve the economies of scale that they have with LCDs. That means sales may be slow to take off. Deliveries of OLED TVs may rise to 2.1 million sets in 2015 from 34,000 in 2012, according to an estimate last year by market researcher IHS Inc.’s iSuppli.

Sony’s OLED

E*Trade Korea predicts OLEDs will account for about 10 percent of TV shipments in 2016.

Sony in 2007 introduced the first OLED TV, with an 11-inch screen, though at $2,500 it failed to stoke demand. Last year, Sony and Panasonic Corp. announced a partnership to develop more OLED sets.

Samsung started investing in facilities for OLEDs, used mostly in its Galaxy smartphones, in 2006. The company has spent

7.9 trillion won in the past two fiscal years developing OLEDs, both for TVS and its mobile devices. LG’s investment in OLED TV panels in 2012 and this year will total 1.1 trillion won.

The Koreans started moving away from LCDs because profits in the segment have been declining since 2004, and they needed a new growth market, according to Chung Won Suk, an analyst at HI Investment & Securities Co. in Seoul.

Profits at Samsung’s consumer electronics division, which includes TVs, fell by more than half, to 230 billion won, in the first quarter. LG said in April that profit at its TV unit dropped to 30 billion won from 164 billion won a year earlier.

“OLEDs aren’t offering much advantage in price and resolution as the technology needs more improvement,” said Chung. “It’s way too early to commercialize it, which is why the Korean companies need ultra-HD TVs.”

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