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Samsung Refusing to Pull Plug on CRT Televisions

Associated Press

Samsung Electronics Co. has an odd sales pitch for one of its new televisions. A slide show for dealers features a drawing of a TV on a tombstone that reads, “The news of my demise is greatly exaggerated!”

The South Korean manufacturer is referring to cathode ray tube, or CRT, televisions -- the heavy boxes that have dominated the business since television was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

As rival technologies become cheaper, the era of the conventional tube TV is ending.

Yet Samsung and a South Korean rival, LG Electronics Inc., are refusing to abandon the old-style tube TVs. They continue trying to improve CRTs even as they and other television makers are building more and more factories that churn out super-thin LCD and plasma TVs.

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Samsung’s “slim” CRT, which began rolling off a Tijuana assembly line in April, is an effort to stall the technology’s anticipated demise.

CRTs -- which some videophiles insist produce the best pictures -- use a gun that fires electrons in a heavy, glass tube to light phosphors, far different than flat-panel TVs. LCDs affix liquid crystals to thin plates of glass, while plasma technology uses special gases to light the screen.

Manufacturers have tried for years to flatten CRTs but had failed to design an electron beam that’s wide enough to light the screen’s edges, said Paul Semenza, an analyst at market researcher ISuppli Corp. Samsung appears to have cracked that barrier, though whether it can produce them on a large scale remains to be seen, he said.

Measuring 16 inches deep and weighing 120 pounds, Samsung’s new 30-inch-screen slimmer CRT is still far too clunky to hang on a wall. But its $1,000 price tag beats many others with high-definition digital displays.

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Samsung’s 32-inch-screen liquid crystal display, or LCD, television may be only 4 inches thick and weigh 36 pounds, but it lists for more than twice as much, at $2,500.

The company also plans a 27-inch model for $900 this fall and a 26-incher next spring at an undetermined price, though Samsung says it will sell its trim CRTs at about half the price of similarly sized LCD screens, even as their prices plummet.

Meanwhile, LG Electronics began selling a 30-inch slimmer CRT in South Korea this year and will introduce it in the U.S. next year at an undetermined price. Like Samsung’s, this model is about one-third slimmer than conventional TVs.

The “tens of millions” of dollars that Samsung says it has spent to develop the slimmer CRT is a small gamble compared with investments in flat panels -- it opened a $2-billion LCD plant near Chonan, South Korea, this year in a joint venture with Japan’s Sony Corp. and is building an LCD plant for $2.1 billion right next door.

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Still, Samsung and LG are defying conventional wisdom that the days of conventional TV are almost over.

Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., maker of Panasonic products, built three plasma plants in Asia and will soon open a fourth -- an $835-million factory in Amagasaki, Japan, that’s the size of 20 football fields.

In December, Matsushita and Japan’s Toshiba Corp. closed their joint CRT plant in Horseheads, N.Y., eliminating 800 jobs. Matsushita said demand for the old-style TVs was flagging against competition from flat panels.

The change is particularly evident in the industrial sprawl of Tijuana, a longtime hotspot for television makers.

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At a Samsung factory across the street from Hyundai Motor Co. and Coca-Cola Co. factories, the larger of two buildings was converted two years ago for newer technologies including plasma and LCD. Today, about 2,000 of the plant’s 3,500 employees work on those new televisions.

CRT still accounted for 75% of televisions sold in the United States and Canada last year, according to ISuppli, and many big-name TV manufacturers still sell them. But few are investing to innovate using the decades-old technology.

CRT is expected to claim only 16% of the market in 2009, when plasma eclipses the conventional tube, ISuppli forecasts. LCD is projected to overtake CRT in 2007.

“The shift is monumental,” said Bob Batt, executive vice president of Nebraska Furniture Mart Inc., which sold nothing but CRTs about five years ago. CRTs today account for about half the TVs at his stores in Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City, Kan., and Batt said they might disappear entirely next year.

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