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More TV viewers may be cutting the cord this year

New mobile devices and Internet-connected televisions that could let viewers cancel their pay-TV subscriptions are expected to be among the hottest items at the Consumer Electronics Show.

January 03, 2011|By Dawn C. Chmielewski and David Sarno, Los Angeles Times

It's about to get a lot harder to turn off the TV.

A torrent of television-ready gadgets will hit the store shelves this year, including dozens of phones and tablet computers that will allow viewers to watch movies and TV shows from just about anywhere.

The proliferation of viewing devices — including a new generation of TV sets that connect to the Internet — could boost the chances that viewers will do what cable and satellite companies fear most: cancel their $70-a-month subscriptions in favor of cheaper Web options.

"2010 was the year that people started wondering, questioning if cord-cutting is real," said Phil Wiser, co-founder and president of Sezmi, a service that allows users to watch TV from both local stations and online sources. "In 2011, it's going to become obvious."

Many of the TVs will be unveiled at this week's Consumer Electronics Show, the annual conference in Las Vegas that attracts more than 100,000 tech devotees searching for technology's next big thing.

This year the buzz is centered on Internet-connected TV and whether it will take off. Internet TV would allow viewers to watch Web videos alongside traditional television shows and movies. Nearly every manufacturer is expected to unveil a Web-capable television at the electronics show.

"It's going to be a fundamentally big transition," said Jason Kilar, chief executive of the Hulu online video service. "You'll see unparalleled choice, from the standpoint of the consumer, when you open up the Web through that screen."

Manufacturers are also sure to trot out a parade of new tablet computers, each hoping to compete with Apple Inc.'s dominant iPad, which has sold more than 7.5 million units since it launched in April.

The cast of iPad rivals is expected to include devices from Hewlett Packard Inc., BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion Ltd. and perhaps Microsoft Corp. New tablets — like their cousin, the Web-connected TV — will also be video-friendly, with high-resolution screens that will let users watch movies and shows they can download from the Internet.

The next generation of smart phones is also likely to grab a share of the spotlight. The newer 4G phones — that's fourth generation — operate close to 10 times faster than current smart phones, allowing users to watch movies and television via a cellular connection. Verizon Wireless Inc. is widely expected to unveil its first 4G phone to take advantage of the high-speed network the company is rolling out.

"People more and more want to take all the stuff they're doing on a computer or a TV and start putting it in their pocket," said Scott McGregor, chief executive of Irvine-based Broadcom Corp., which makes microchips for popular consumer devices including the iPhone and iPad, as well as TVs and Blu-ray players.

Automakers will also jump on the Internet bandwagon, rolling out cars that will let drivers send one another real-time road conditions or allow passengers to watch YouTube on in-car displays.

Whether Web-connected TVs will be this year's Holy Grail of gadgetry is uncertain. Last year the Consumer Electronics Show's "it" gadget was 3-D television, but 3-D TV has yet to gain traction with consumers. Before that it was HD DVD, which was touted as offering extra-sharp high-definition home video. But HD DVD succumbed to rival format Blu-ray.

But much-hyped gadgets in other years, such as the high-definition TV, have become ubiquitous.

More than 80% of Sony's Bravia TVs will be able to connect to the Internet this year, compared with 50% in 2010, said Greg Belloni, a spokesman for the company's TV business. In addition, all of Sony's Blu-ray players and Blu-ray home theater systems will have the ability to connect to the Internet to pipe in additional content.

Internet-TV services like Boxee are expected to join TV makers in a flurry of technology partnerships to be touted at the trade show.

"There will be a bunch of content-related announcements — content that has not before been on TV," said Avner Ronen, Boxee's chief executive and co-founder. "This is a huge market that's getting disrupted: the living room. The giants of the tech world — Apple, Google, Microsoft — are trying to claw their way in. We're one of the little guys trying to establish ourselves."

For entertainment industry executives, Internet video's migration from the PC to the TV presents opportunities as well as fresh headaches. It opens the market to a new crop of distributors willing to pay top dollar for licensing rights to TV shows and movies. But it also causes friction with cable, satellite and telecommunications carriers, which pay $30 billion annually to deliver video into the home.

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