HD is coming ... or is it?

The major television manufacturers represented at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas all agree on one thing - HDTV is just around the corner.

Unfortunately, they can't agree on what corner.

John Taylor, vice president of Public Affairs and Communication for Zenith, calls 2001 a "breakout year" for HD. Of course, one of the reasons he dubbed it so was the convention-timed announcement of a 27-inch HDTV for under $1000. HD is just a $699 converter box away. Zenith was also demonstrating a full-line of dual-tuner sets, ready for HDTV without a converter box.

Taylor said Zenith was calling 2001 a turning point because "more stations are coming on the air. More product is available, and HDTV is the centerpiece application. We're starting to hit some affordable price points." Taylor said Zenith had not stalled on HD, that "we always intended this to be a slow transition."

"Digital is hot," said Jonas Tanenbaum, national marketing manager for Panasonic. "We've really taken off in the last 12 months." Tanenbaum said Panasonic had sold more digital than analog big screens in 2000.

Sharp and Philips provide a more modest prediction for the future. Frank DeMartin, Sharp's director of product marketing said, "HD-compatible is the market today. We won't begin offering full HDTV until 2002. The demand is just not there." DeMartin said the real problem for Sharp had been the resistance of broadcasters. "We had wanted to be the leader (in HDTV), but we're more conservative now." He said he expected to see a big push from Congress and the FCC in the next year or two to help ensure that broadcasters met the 2006 deadline.

James Jolliffe, staff engineer for Zenith, said he saw the HDTV market boom coming in the next 12 to 18 months. "The price has to come to $1500 to $2000 before you get out of the analog market. Even then, lower analog prices will help maintain that market."

Data from Vantis Research that suggested at least some of the audience felt unrestricted by price. Bob Gatton, national marketing manager for Philips, said the Vantis study predicted 600,000 pieces of plasma sold by 2006. Rear projection, in spite of being on the market for a number of years, didn't hit one million pieces until 1998.

JVC and Sanyo provided the longest-term predictions for a breakout of HDTV. "We're carefully watching what's going on," said Dan McCarron, national product specialist for JVC. "We still have a lot of unresolved content issues, but we're pleased the FCC has become more involved with the manufacturers." McCarron said next year is probably not a breakout year for HD, but "it's coming. We'll still be selling more analog than digital, just like everyone else." JVC will ship its first HDTV set in April of this year.

David Berkus, corporate manager of marketing communications for Sanyo, said his company was simply waiting for the mass market. They are using the same strategy that served them well in the portable CD business. "When you find HDTV in at Wal-Mart, you'll find Sanyo," said Berkus.

The companies also disagreed over the FCC's willingness and/or ability to enforce the 2006 digital conversion deadline. But all agreed they would be gearing their efforts with that date in mind. That gearing includes educating retailers as well as consumers.

As John Taylor of Zenith put it, "Consumer research shows they [consumers] have to have it [HDTV]. Maybe, they just can't afford it."