Sales of flat-panel TVs last year were, well, flat--in part because only a few models were available in selected areas. But this year, they're cropping up everywhere, even in the most rural areas of the country.
So what's the skinny on flat panels?
Part of a new wave of high-tech TVs hitting the market, flat-panel sets were almost 25 years in the making. They range from 3 to 5 inches deep and 40 to 50 inches wide and weigh 80 to 100 pounds. Most are monitors that must be attached to a video source, such as a VCR, DVD player or set-top box. Some can also be used as gigantic computer screens.
Current prices range from $11,000 to $25,000, which is more than most people are likely to spend for a TV set. Even if prices drop, as analysts predict, flat TVs would still cost $6,500 by 2000 and $2,000 by 2003--while 95% of all sets sold in the $8-billion U.S. television market are under 27 inches wide and cost less than $1,000, said Walter Miao, senior vice president of Access Media International.
Traditional TV sets, those that rely on cathode-ray tubes to create a picture, will account for 96% of television shipments by 2004, analysts say. But CRT shipments will grow only 3% between 1996 and 2004.
Shipments of flat-panel TV sets, which use what's known as plasma technology, are expected to grow from 8,000 units in 1998 to 1.1 million in 2004, according to a report by San Jose-based market research firm Stanford Resources.
"We think this will really evolve into the premier display technology down the road," said Mike Leese, vice president and general manager for Philips' Super Large Display Unit. "Will it completely replace CRTs? Probably not in my lifetime, but eventually."
Flat-panel sets on the market today use plasma gas instead of a cathode-ray tube to create a picture. Plasma screens are made up of thousands of sealed, low-pressure chambers of xenon and neon gas. Electrical currents energize the gas compartments, causing them to emit invisible ultraviolet light. This light strikes red, green and blue phosphors--a substance that gives off light when exposed to heat--that are embedded on the back of the glass screen. That produces the picture viewed from the other side.
Manufacturers are still trying to figure out the most efficient way to construct screens, which is one reason they are so expensive, said David E. Mentley, vice president of Stanford Resources.
"The trouble is that the ultimate manufacturing process isn't defined yet," he said.
Electronics makers are also working to perfect plasma technology itself, with the quality of this year's sets showing improvement over past models, said Jonas Tanenbaum, national marketing manager for Panasonic Consumer Electronics.
Manufacturers have also figured how to more efficiently ship the fragile technology.
"One of our hesitations last year was that plasma has a lot of benefits--it's a very bright technology and has a good contrast ratio--but the challenge, frankly, is it's a fairly delicate technology," said Mark Knox, Samsung's senior marketing manager for digital products. "It's . . . like hundreds and hundreds of little miniature Christmas ornaments filled with gas. How do you ship this thing efficiently?"
Some TV manufacturers are holding back their production of flat-screen sets to avoid consumer confusion over the release of digital televisions. Mitsubishi Electronics had planned a mass roll-out of flat-screen TVs last year, but decided to wait.
"These are expensive products. We believe that the consumer who is interested in this kind of high-tech display is also interested in HDTV," said Marty Zanfino, manager of product development at Mitsubishi Consumer Electronics America in Irvine. "It would cause frustration with consumers that they can't get both."
Some manufacturers will ship flat TVs this year that are capable of displaying high-definition pictures.
For now, makers of the flat-screen TVs say the sets are more of an image builder than a moneymaker.
"Flat-panel TVs won't budge the Richter scale at all," said Nate Apfelbaum, assistant general manager of the television division at Panasonic Consumer Electronics. "They won't show up in terms of impacting our industry."
Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.