Japan’s New Flat-Screens: The Eco-Friendly TV

Japans New Flat-Screens: The Eco-Friendly TV

Most people use their eyes to judge the best flat-screen televisions.
Michiyuki Sugino, deputy general manager of audio-visual systems for Sharp,
says people should also use their hands. Touch an ordinary set and you’ll
feel the heat given off by electronic components at work. This warmth is
energy that is being wasted, Sugino says, and for consumers, hot spots mean
higher electric bills. But lay hands on one of Sharp’s new 32-in D Series
AQUOS TVs. “The biggest surprise for consumers is when they touch the TV
front and back,” says Sugino. “It’s cool. They can feel the difference.”

But will they care Japan’s leading consumer electronics companies sure hope
so. The global recession is weakening demand for LCD and plasma TVs. This
means Sharp, Panasonic and Sony are desperate to defend their market shares
and are racing to come up with new features to distinguish their products
from those of competitors. The marketing catchphrase in Japan is now “eco
TV:” flat-screen sets that, like the new Sharp Aquos, are environmentally
friendlier because they use less energy and cost less to run. “[Eco functions] are a premium that consumers will pay for,” says Emi Nagahara, a
product planner for Sony’s TV business group. “It will be a standard” for
all LCD TVs, he predicts.

Using a variety of technological tweaks, manufacturers are achieving
substantial power savings with no sacrifice in performance and picture
quality. Sony, which entered the eco TV market last summer, developed a more
efficient backlight for its new BRAVIA VE5 series that uses nearly 40% less
energy than conventional LCD TVs. Further gains are made through additional
features including a sensor that halves the energy the TV is using by
turning off the screen when no motion is detected nearby. The sets are also
equipped with a light sensor that adjusts the backlight to ambient room
light, and with an energy saving switch that cuts all power to the set as if
it were unplugged.

Other manufacturers are launching green TVs of their own. This month, Panasonic — the No.
1 maker of plasma TVs with a 40% share of that market worldwide — started selling in Japan its 42-in. VIERA V series plasma set that
uses 48% less power than the product line’s previous generation. On Feb. 20
Sharp launched its AQUOS D series in Japan, which uses 45% less energy than last
year’s model. Cool to the touch, this model uses improved power-saving components including a modified backlight.

It’s far from certain that buyers, accustomed to judging flat-screen TVs by picture
quality, thinness and screen size, will be willing to pay more for eco TVs.
Koya Tabata, consumer electronics analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo, argues
that Japanese consumers are increasingly concerned not only with sticker
prices but also with operating costs. “I used to have a 50-in. Pioneer
plasma TV,” says Tabata. “It was our heater in the winter.” But due to
higher energy prices and more households owning two or three TVs,
electricity consumption matters more than it once did. About 10% of energy
used in the home goes to power TVs; an eco TV can make a dent in the
electric bill. For example, the Panasonic V model consumes 200 kWh, down
from 386 kWh for the preceding generation; that reduction could save the
average Japanese household about $41 a year, according to Sharp. Amid the
recession, buyers “are concerned about consumption and running cost,” says

For power-saving TVs to catch on “we have to develop technology that can
improve the eco function but hopefully won’t increase the cost,” says
Hirofumi Wada, general manager of Panasonic’s visual and display business
group. That’s no mean feat. Profit margins are under severe pressure during
the global recession and Japanese electronics companies are reporting big
losses even as they close factories and lay off workers. Worldwide unit
sales of LCD TVs are up about 10% over last year, but revenues are down about 5% because companies continue to slash
prices to move sets, according to Jeremy Tonkin, a retail analyst with CLSA,
a Hong Kong-based brokerage house. A report by Nikko Citigroup analyst Kota
Ezawa says that prices for flat-panel TVs will continue to decline in the
U.S. through March and that makers will probably lower prices further this year to clear out inventory. Manufacturers expect overall prices will fall
by 20% over the next two years. “The Japanese consumer is spending,” says
Tonkin. But “consumers want to buy something cheaper.”

In flat-screen TVs, two trends seem assured: prices will continue to fall
and sets will get greener. Over the next few years, advances in display
technologies promise even more dramatic power savings. Sony’s OLED-screen
TVs and Mitsubishi’s LaserVue are moving toward mass commercialization. Credit
Suisse’s Tabata says there’s still lots of room to reduce both power and
cost. “We’ve got a long ways to go,” says Sugino of Sharp. “It’s difficult,
but we have to do it.” In a few years, eco TVs may really be cool.

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