Commentary

Crystal Ball Murky For Screens And Their Content

In the end, it’s not as easy as it might appear to predict what people want to watch, Joe Flint observes in a piece in the Los Angeles Times this morning. “The hot stars on the TV screen this fall were supposed to be Playboy bunnies, Pan Am stewardesses and angry dinosaurs. Instead, the winners were broke waitresses, snarky suburbanites and Snow White.”

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the networks spend making and marketing “Two and a Half Men” wannabes such as NBC’s "The Playboy Club," ABC's "Pan Am" and Fox's prehistoric drama "Terra Nova," viewers are a persnickety group who may take the hook but also are quite adept at spitting it out.

"All the buzz and hype really just works for the first episode," Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate tells Flint. "This isn't like a movie where you have a great first weekend and make your money."

And in a world where the re-engineered “Two and a Half Men” starring Ashton Kutcher in Charlie Sheen’s stead has garnered about a 25% increase in audience over last season -– to nearly 19 million viewers –- who’s to predict what people will summon forth on their screens, or even which screen they will summon it forth upon?

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Pundits like David Carr have been “running around screaming our heads off about falling skies and collapsing paradigms, and yet as 2011 comes to an end, the sky is still there,” the New York Times media writer drolly observes in a Christmas Eve piece. Network and cable TV, as well as “media octopuses like Time Warner and News Corporation,” are doing just fine despite the warnings of creeping dismediation.

Advertisers still like big numbers and other “old truisms in media still obtain -- content wears the crown and strong brands break through clutter,” Carr writes. But hark! On the horizon, cracks appear in the firmament.

“Content has a price tag, which is reassuring, but the old dividing lines between television, radio, Web and print disappear within the four corners of a tablet,” Carr writes. And it’s a whole new ball game out there. “The consumer will decide,” Carr indicates, in far more impactful ways than they always have. As they “program their own mediated universe … they can snap healthy companies in two while they are at it.” Harbinger in point: Netflix.

At the same time, we’re headed toward a media universe where everything is one big mash-up. “Huge world events will first appear on social media platforms and then leap to mainstream media and back again.”

Meanwhile, the folks who manufacture the screens on which we’ve traditionally watched that mainstream content are awash in inventory, which led Samsung to announce that it was buying out Sony’s 50% share in S-LCD Co., a seven-year-old joint venture to produce liquid-crystal display (LCDs) for televisions. It will pay about $940 million.

“The business generated huge profits in the mid-2000s,” writes Evan Ramstad in the Wall Street Journal. “But manufacturers overbuilt, and demand -- even with the onset of new gadgets like tablet computers -- hasn't kept up with their ability to churn out LCD screens.”

The Financial Times’ Jonathan Soble wrote last month that high production costs, compounded by the rising yen, have made it difficult for Japanese companies to compete with South Korean and Taiwanese rivals such as Samsung and LG and that Sony would be making a significant retreat from a “business that vaulted it to global prominence 40 years ago but has since become an unprofitable burden.”

Meanwhile, LG Electronics will show off what it’s calling the world’s biggest OLED screen –- 55 inches in diameter with a contrast ratio in excess of 100,000:1 and a wider color gamut than regular LCD TVs -– at the Consumer Electronics Show next month. What’s more, at 5mm wide, it’s slimmer than the iPhone 4S, reportsDigital Trends’ Andy Boxall.

LG Display’s CEO, Dr. Sang Beom Han, says the company has “successfully addressed” the problems encountered when super-sizing OLED panels. He’s talking about the engineering problems, one must presume.

LG’s 15-inch EL9500 OLED TV costs £1,500 in the UK, or about $2,300; the 31-inch version is the equivalent of $9,000. Boxall points to the abacus of Pocket Lint’s Stuart Miles, who informs us that he’s thinking that LG’s 55-inch screen will retail for about £20,000 -- or $30,000 -– when it hits very selective retailers later next year.

But how long before it’s 300 bucks at Best Buy -- or should we say Google? -– one wonders. With everybody minding everybody else’s business these days, those profits margins are soon as thin as an OLED.

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