TV makers hope thin is in

NEW YORK – Lee Richman installs high-end home theater systems that can cost as much as $170,000. Lately,
he’s noticed that some of his clients – or their interior designers – are perking up when they hear
about ultra-slim TV sets, which come off the wall only about an inch (2.5 centimeters).
The difference between these thin models and regular flat-panel TVs, which generally are about 3 or 4
inches deep (7.5 or 10 centimeters deep), is pretty small. It’s nothing like the aesthetic shock that
consumers had when flat panels were introduced to replace fat old cathode ray tube TVs.
But in a certain slice of the market – anyone who has subscribed to more than one home decor magazine,
perhaps – super slim TVs make people "very enthused," Richman said.
This is textbook business strategy for TV makers. Now that flat-panel TVs have come down from thousands
of dollars to as little as $200, manufacturers are pushing high-end alternatives that are slimmer, use
less energy and come with other high-end add-ons – and can carry price tags in the thousands again.
Bulky TVs have long been banished from the hippest living rooms, and the vast majority of TVs sold in the
U.S. today are flat panels. But competition and the recession have sent prices falling, cutting into
Tweaking with a basic product’s look is a classic way to re-ignite demand. Think of jeans: Designers
stress a boot cut one year, narrow pant legs the next.
When it comes to TVs, screens can get only so big. So manufacturers are hoping to recoup some of their
lost margins by stressing a set’s minuscule depth to consumers who still have money.
"You’re going to see them marketing the bejesus out of that, because they’ve maxed out the
resolution" and other features that often are used to sell TVs, said Jim Barry, a spokesman for the
Consumer Electronics Association.
Thinness is an easy marketing factor to reach for, since it’s tangible and easily measured, just like
screen size. Manufacturers are also improving picture quality, but the measurements, like contrast ratio
and color gamut, are more difficult for a shopper to understand.
Samsung Electronics Co. is pushing ultra-thin design as one of the enhanced features of its latest HDTV
line, which starts at $1,600 for a screen 32 inches (81 centimeters) on the diagonal and costs as much
as $4,000 for a 55-inch (139-centimeter) screen and other features. The company is putting a lot of
effort into getting these sets in front of consumers, including by setting up mall kiosks for
demonstrations, said Jonas Tanenbaum, vice president of flat-panel marketing for Samsung Electronics
Among the selling points: The sets are about 1.2 inches thick. They are backlit by energy-efficient
light-emitting diodes instead of fluorescent tubes. The higher-end models can connect to the Internet
and PCs.
Because 1-inch-thick (2.5-centimeter-thick) TVs are relatively new and cost so much, it is too early to
tell when super-slimness will trickle down to the mass market. Paul Gagnon, an analyst with market
researcher DisplaySearch, estimates that ultra-thin sets make up about 2 percent of the overall TV
market. In North America, it’s about 5 percent.
Toshiba Corp., for one, is not bothering with slim models, at least for now. Its latest flat-panel TV is
4 inches (10 centimeters) thick.
"We don’t believe, especially in this economy, that people are willing to pay extra for
ultra-thin," said Scott Ramirez, vice president of TV marketing at Toshiba America Consumer
Products. "No one is complaining about their sets being 3 or 4 inches thick."
Making a thicker set helps Toshiba control the way the screen is backlit, yielding deeper black images
and better contrast in dark scenes.
Even so, the long-term trend is probably toward skinnier and skinnier sets, perhaps eventually down to
less than half an inch. To get significantly thinner than that, the sets probably will need a different
display technology, such as organic LEDs, or OLEDs, which generate light on the display’s surface and
don’t have to be illuminated from behind. Sony Corp. has an $2,500 TV that uses OLEDs, a first for the
industry, and is just 3 millimeters thick (less than one-eighth of an inch). But for now the screen is
only 11 inches (28 centimeters) on the diagonal.
Gagnon expects ultra-thin models to be at a premium for another year or two, while manufacturers wring as
much as possible from customers who are wealthy, or early adopters of gadgets or especially
Of course, after that, once ultra-thin TVs become the norm, manufacturers will once again have to come up
with another way to lure big spenders.