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A story on today’s Bloomberg.com Web site says Panasonic has accused Samsung of starting a 3D TV price war…and that Panasonic can’t hope to compete.

According to Yoshiiku Miyata, the head of Panasonic’s TV business, “It’s become unclear whether we can reach our target” of selling one million 3-D sets in the fiscal year that ends March 31. Both Panasonic and Sony have stated that Japanese TV manufacturers are struggling to sell 3D TVs in the United States, and that any price war may have a negative effect on corporate earnings.

It’s clear that TV manufacturers expected 3D models to offset price declines for conventional 2D TVs. But that’s an unrealistic expectation, as 3D TV is clearly a niche product. Not everyone wants to watch 3D at home, and there have been more than a few objections raised by consumers to the concept of having to wear glasses to enjoy 3D. (That’s why several companies are working on autostereo 3D TV sets, most notably Toshiba.)

According to Yoshihisa Ishida, who heads Sony’s home-entertainment business, prices of 3D TVs are falling faster than anticipated. And Samsung is clearly leading the charge, offering their 720p-class PN50C490B3D 50-inch plasma 3D TV for $989.99 at Best Buy (no glasses included).

That price is substantially lower than Panasonic’s entry-level TC-P50VT20 1080p 3D plasma TV ($2,499 with one pair of active shutter glasses) and Sony’s KDL-46HX800 1080p LED LCD 3DTV ($2,299, no glasses). In fact, for a real apples-to-apples comparison, Samsung also has the 50-inch 1080p PN50C680G5F plasma 3DTV on sale for $1,339.99 (again, no glasses).

According to the Bloomberg story, Panasonic is counting on 3D TV sales in Japan and Europe to offset Samsung’s advantage in the U.S. market, quoting Miyata as saying “We don’t plan to follow Samsung in the U.S., it’s impossible. No one can keep up.”

So – why are we seeing prices wars this early in the game? There are a few reasons. First of all, we’re in a recession, and TV sales are far from robust. Secondly, only about 300,000 3D TVs had been sold worldwide through early June of 2010 – a drop in the bucket.

Contrast that with the nearly 1.4 million LCD TVs shipped stateside in the second quarter by Vizio! Even Panasonic shipped 270,000 LCD TVs to the United States in Q2, and they’re primarily a plasma TV manufacturer.

Another factor is the price premium charged for 3D sets over conventional TVs. You can buy a Panasonic TC-P50U2 50-inch 1080p plasma set for $899.99 at Best Buy. That’s $1,600 lower than the 3D model, and in these days of consumer frugality, that price differential just to pick up the 3D option won’t fly.

Realistically, manufacturers have to (and will) start building 3D compatibility into all sets that measure 50 inches and larger. And that will probably happen by 2012. 3D will be an option, like Internet connections and apps such as Skype, that consumers can use if they wish or disregard. Active shutter glasses will be sold separately, assuming the market hasn’t started moving towards passive 3D technology by then.

Posted by Pete Putman, September 1, 2010 9:23 AM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.