CES Sees Screen Seachange


(click thumbnail)Panasonic set another record for the world’s largest TV screen when Panasonic AVC Networks President Toshihiro Sakamoto unveiled this mammoth 150-inch plasma display at the 2008 International CES opening keynote.The 2008 Consumer Electronics Show had big screens (Panasonic’s 150-inch plasma monitor); tiny screens (MyVu’s sunglasses-sized “personal media viewers” that plug into a video iPod); thin screens (inch-thick LCD displays from Sony, Philips, Hitachi and many others), and even thinner monitors (OLEDs from Sony and Samsung, which were barely a quarter-inch deep). Exhibit halls burst with devices that grab video signals from the airwaves and the Internet to display on mobile devices and via new set-top connections.

But despite this deluge of new display devices, this year CES was about the changing relationships within the diverse sectors of the TV business.

“This was the best cable show I’ve been to in years,” said Bill Thomas, an executive with TV Guide, as a posse of cable marketing personnel lingered at his booth. It was TV Guide’s first foray onto the CES show floor after many years of hosting prospects in off-site venues. The company is seeking to embed its electronic program listings in the next generation of “smart televisions,” which were omnipresent at the show, as well as in the digital program directories of cable TV, satellite and telephone TV services, all of which were represented at CES.

Although CES was initially conceived as a marketplace for audio and TV manufacturers to line up retail relationships, the show has expanded in both substance and size. Last month’s 40th installment of the electronics extravaganza focused heavily on the content that will flow through the expanding wired and wireless circuits and the greater diversity of mobile, wireless devices as well as conventional—and occasionally breakthrough—reception devices.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, the first cable TV executive ever to keynote a CES session, unveiled broadband programming and technology services, such as the on-demand “Fancast” feed and a portable DVR, developed with Panasonic. Roberts also described a major expansion of Comcast’s HDTV service, broadly described as “Project Infinity.” It includes the very high speed (160 Mbps) broadband service, using DOCSIS 3.0 technology that Roberts unveiled at the cable TV convention here eight months ago.

“Project Infinity builds on our commitment to bring more content to people across all platforms at home and on the go,” Roberts said. “We’ll work with our partners, programmers and video producers to deliver on this vision.”

Roberts also announced that Comcast has launched its long-delayed TiVo service in New England and will roll it into more markets throughout 2008. The service combines TiVo functions and features with Comcast services such as video-on-demand in a set-top incorporating a DVR.

Among CES’s crowd of 130,000 people (about 12 percent smaller than last year) were sizeable contingents from Hollywood and the broadcasting industry, along with cable and telco TV delegations. NBC Universal and Sony Pictures Television mounted exhibits that augmented—or potentially replaced—their appearances at NATPE. Syndicated TV distributors focused on the availability of their content for alternative pipelines, including streaming video and handheld devices.

The convergence of content and technology—a theme throughout many CES venues—was underscored in the sprawling Sony booth. The syndicated video content section was very close to a Sony hardware display of its “Video Link” components, which fit on the back of Sony Bravia TV sets—and enable access to Internet feeds from a home computer. Sharp introduced its “Aquos Net” service that streams Web content directly to its TV sets, and LG Electronics promoted its alliance with Netflix to allow downloading of movies to boxes from LG Electronics. Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba and many others also showcased integrated “smart TV” sets that plug directly into the Internet through an Ethernet jack on the device. These hardware-content relationships underscore the drift toward watching Web video on TV monitors.


While the Internet + TV deals drew attention from the convergence crowds, TV set buyers were still focused on viewing options. Their choices were, literally, bigger and thinner than ever. Toshiba paraded promotional trucks around Las Vegas touting its 1.5-inch thin LCD monitors, but in the convention hall, LG, Samsung, Panasonic and others displayed large-screen flat panels (up to 50 inches) that were barely one inch thick.

Sony and Samsung got even skinnier, with their OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens that were barely a quarter inch deep. Sony’s 31-inch OLED screen (unveiled in Japan a few months ago) goes on sale for $2,700 this month, while Samsung’s model is still a prototype.

Back on the show floor, viewers got a sample of the extremes in video displays. Panasonic’s prototype 150-inch plasma display drew gasps when Panasonic AVC Networks President Toshihiro Sakamoto unveiled it in his opening keynote, as he called flat panel monitors “the digital hearth” of the 21st century home. But there is no price or delivery timetable for Panasonic’s giant monitor—which leapfrogged the size race, benchmarked last year by Sharp’s 110-inch LCD screen. At the other end of the viewing range were the newest eye-goggles—actually sunglasses sized “personal media viewers”—from MyVu. The devices plug into a video iPod or other personal media player for watching a heads-up display. They include earbuds for the audio track.


(click thumbnail)While certainly not the most advanced consumer electronics product on the CES show floor, these DTV converter boxes are expected to be among the most popular devices on the retail floor over the next 12 months.The CES agenda included at least four sessions dedicated to the DTV transition. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, during an onstage conversation with CEA President Gary Shapiro, insisted that the Feb. 17, 2009 analog cutoff is “a hard date.” Martin said there is no way he can envision the date will be changed and added that all parties involved in the process are “doing a good job,” although he noted that “we need to be doing more.”

A session devoted to training retailers on how to handle the DTV converter coupon program drew barely 30 attendees, underscoring the need for an accelerated consumer and industry education program.

A subsequent session, at which industry organizations such as NAB, NCTA and the American Association of Retired Persons offered their transition outlooks, attracted only about 70 people. Although the FCC, officials from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and others on the rostrum voiced optimistic outlooks on the transition, their comments identified significant challenges in reaching target audiences.

For example, Tony Wilhelm, director of the DTV coupon program consumer education for NTIA, singled out Mexican border communities, which rely heavily on over-the-air television. He said that as NTIA evaluates requests for the DTV coupons, it will adjust its consumer education programs to make sure the message is reaching the most needy geographic regions.

In her opening remarks for the DTV Transition session, Meredith Baker, the newly named Acting Administrator of NTIA, noted that 19 digital-to-analog converter boxes have been certified under the $40 coupon program and that in the first week of availability, more than two million coupons were requested—a signal that the promotional message is getting off to a good start.

At an NTIA booth (adjacent to the FCC booth) in a highly trafficked concourse at the Las Vegas Convention Center, several of the authorized converter boxes were on display, including models from LG, Apex and RCA. EchoStar announced that its TR-40 model converter will sell for $39.95, which means that customers with a $40 federal coupon would get a “free” box. The device is seen as an opportunity for EchoStar to resolve the local-into-local problem in markets (mostly smaller metro areas) where it does not carry over-the-air signals via satellite.


On the eve of CES, Warner Home Video announced that it was abandoning its dual support of HD-DVD and Blu-ray high definition DVD formats and will focus solely on Blu-ray. That led to extensive speculation about the future viability of the Toshiba-led HD-DVD format, now that only two studios—Paramount and NBC Universal—are supplying titles. Sony Chairman/CEO Sir Howard Stringer praised Warner’s action as benefitting “the long-term interest of the consumer.” Meanwhile, the HD DVD Promotional Group maintained its upbeat pitches at its booth, although it cancelled a CES party.

Elsewhere, digital video delivery via the Internet added an array of offerings. NBC Universal and Microsoft unveiled plans to transmit online coverage of the Beijing Olympics via the Microsoft Network, using the streaming Silverlight Technology that Microsoft acquired last year. “NBC Olympics.com on MSN” is expected to stream hundreds of hours of live and on-demand material during the two-week August Olympics binge.

Samsung and Vongo (the Starz Entertainment online unit) said they will offer downloads of more then 2,500 films and videos for $9.99 per month.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini, in his keynote remarks, stressed the new microprocessors what will enable a “personal Internet,” which will accelerate usage of social networks and other video-driven services. Otellini’s on-stage demonstration featured a preview of “BigStage” technology, software that lets home video camera users create 3-D avatars of themselves using photographs of their faces and then insert the images into online productions.

“That’s the leading edge of what’s possible,” Intel’s CEO declared—summing up the vigor and uncertainty of the CE market.

Gary Arlen

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.