Worldwide TV shipments fell last year for the first time since at least 2004, slipping 0.3% to 247.7 million units.

Market research firm NPD DisplaySearch said Wednesday that LCD TV shipments rose by 7% to slightly more than 205 million units, a “substantial slowdown” from the double-digit growth in previous years. The firm began tracking global TV shipments in 2004.

Plasma TV shipments declined almost 7% to 17.2 million units, the largest decrease yet, and cathode ray tube, or CRT, TVs fell 34%, the firm said.

“The causes of slow demand in 2011 were complex, and although LCD TV showed growth, results were well below industry expectations,” said Paul Gagnon, director of North America TV research for DisplaySearch.

Gagnon said the low shipment levels were caused in part by excessive inventory levels early in the year for the U.S. and European markets and a sharp drop in demand in Japan after the end of the government-sponsored Eco-Points program that caused a surge in replacement activity in 2009 and 2010.

Fourth-quarter shipments were down 4% to 74.2 million units, with LCD shipments up just 1% -- the lowest growth rate since DisplaySearch began tracking shipments. Plasma TV units were down 8%, and CRTs were down 43%. The decline in units was most significant in Japan and Western Europe with “only mild growth” in North America. TV shipment growth in emerging regions, however, continues to be strong.

Among 3-D TVs, shipments worldwide posted gains in every region, but most of all in China and Europe. Yet 3-D penetration “continues to be lackluster in North America,” accounting for just 9% of fourth-quarter TV shipments, compared with 21% in Western Europe and 23% in China. More than 24 million 3-D TVs were shipped worldwide in 2011.

The top flat-panel TV brands worldwide by revenue share in the fourth quarter were Samsung (26.3%), LGE (13.4%), Sony (9.8%), Panasonic (6.9%) and Sharp (5.9%).

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