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At CES there was an extensive and exuberant RCA TV booth, the likes of which have not been seen for many years.  RCA created all-electronic color TV, invented the liquid-crystal display, and – within the memories of people who aren’t all that old – dominated the consumer television industry.  But, eventually, RCA existed only as a brand whose application to cheap radios and accessories sold in poly bags hanging from hooks tarnished the gold on that once-legendary name.

RCA TV returned to CES with a large booth and lots of enthusiasm. (Photo: Ken Werner)

The  incestuous relationship between the Radio Corporation of American and General Electric began in 1892 when GE was formed by the merger of Edison General Electric (yes, that Edison) and the Thomson-Houston Electric Company.  (The Thomson of Thomson-Houston was the famous inventor and industrialist Elihu Thomson, who once served as the acting president of MIT.)  In 1919, RCA was formed by GE, AT&T, Westinghouse, and the U.S. government, among others, to jointly develop technologies for wireless communication, with David Sarnoff as General Manager.  Thirteen years later GE and Westinghouse sold RCA.

In the 1960s RCA, with management passing from “General” Sarnoff to his son Robert and a group of “modern” managers, succumbed to the then-fashionable management model of acquiring a portfolio of diversified companies.  In addition to acquiring Banquet Foods and Hertz rent-a-car, the company developed mainframe computers to compete with IBM.  This disastrous initiative produced the second largest write-off in corporate history up to that time.  (The largest was for Corfam, DuPont’s artificial shoe-leather replacement.)  RCA was adrift, and continued to drift even after the younger Sarnoff was dumped as Chairman and CEO in 1975.

In 1985, GE saw an opportunity and bought RCA – primarily to gain control NBC.  GE sold off the unrelated companies, and sold several technology divisions to groups led by division managers.  In 1987, RCA’s consumer electronics business was sold to Thomson, a descendant of the French division of Thomson-Houston.  (Thanks to Robert Betts and his delightfully quirky bobsamerica.com for some of the historical information in the preceding paragraphs.)

In January 2010, shareholders approved a major restructuring plan for Thomson.  As part of that plan the company renamed itself Technicolor, the famous film- and video-processing company that Thomson had purchased in 2000 from UK media company Carlton Communications.

Now, Technicolor is taking a newly creative and entrepreneurial approach to licensing its various brands, which include Thomson, Proscan, NordMende, Ferguson, SABA, and the iconic Victor (“His Master’s Voice”), in addition to RCA, said Edward Thompson, Technicolor’s VP in charge of licensing.


At CES, RCA showed a 55-inch smart TV based on Android 4.0, the M-GO app, and an M-Star system-on-chip that integrates the smart-TV functions. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Adjacent to Technicolor’s CES booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s Central Hall was the large RCA booth, showing a broad range of large and small TVs made by ON Corporation of Seongnam, Korea, which is the television licensee for the RCA brand.  “While some consumers are looking for all the bells and whistles, we are focused on reaching the customer who wants a beautiful television that delivers great images at an affordable price,” said ON Corp. Executive VP of Marketing Jonathan Zupnik in a press release.  “In today’s tough economic times, we are committed to serving the mass market. Consumers have embraced our current line of televisions, and our retail partners reported strong sales in 2012.”

In the booth, I insistently asked an RCA representative to tell me which company RCA was particularly targeting in its fight for market share.  He stoically refused to answer, but did acknowledge that RCA was positioning itself as a high-quality value brand, and would be pricing its products slightly higher than Westinghouse Digital.

The most interesting large TV in the booth was the LED55C55R120QS 55-inch smart TV, which uses the M-GO smart TV app running on Android 4.0.  M-go is a joint venture between Technicolor and Dreamworks, and M-GO is a free app intended to make content “easily accessible across devices.”  In part, that means that all of a consumer’s media – including movies, music, apps, live TV, etc. – will show up in a single location that is, M-GO says, easy to navigate.  And partners are buying what M-GO selling.  Intel, Samsung, Vizio, LG, Starz Digital, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and, of course, RCA have all signed on in one way or another.  Intel and the device makers are including the app in their products.

“His master’s voice.” Technicolor, owner and licensor of the RCA brand, reminded passers-by of the other brands in its portfolio, including Victor. Have a Nipper, anyone? (Photo: Ken Werner)

Other features of the smart RCA 55-inch are 120Hz frame rate and the M-Star system-on-chip processor that incorporates the M-GO smart-TV functions.  That means the smart in smart TV comes at very low incremental cost.  This is similar to the approach recently announced by Vizio, but Vizio is using the MediaTek chip.  (These two Taiwanese fabless chip makers had planned to merge, but the merger date has been delayed because China and South Korea have raised anti-trust concerns, according to Focus Taiwan.)

The large RCA sets use a “rear-lit LED” backlight unit designed by ON Corp.  According to ON,  this differs from a direct-lit LED backlight in that DLEDs are premium units that use large numbers of LEDs, while rear-lit (RLED?) uses a relatively small number of LEDs in horizontal rows.  This might actually be a useful distinction, but the rest of the industry uses DLED for both kinds of rear-LED backlight units, and some version of RLED is being used widely by makers of value-priced TVs.  RCA’s RLED uses three or four rows of LEDs, depending on panel size and supplier, along with a diffuser provide an even luminance distribution.  Luminance for the 55-inch is 350 nits.

While I was in the RCA booth, a meeting was going on to decide the pricing of the smart 55-inch.  The MSRP will be somewhere between $999 and $1049.  Other TVs shown included a “dumb” version of the 55-inch, along with 52-, 46-, and 42-inch models, all with 1920×1080 resolution, and a 32-inch with 1360×768.

There were two other TV categories that RCA was pushing hard.  The first was portable TVs in sizes from 3.5 to 8 inches.  The most interesting of these was an 8-inch, 1024×768, Android 4.0 tablet that incorporated both ATSC and Dyle mobile TV tuners.  Yes, you say, but isn’t that an obvious combination?  Perhaps it should have been, but only RCA is doing it so far.

The other category is DVD combos – TVs with DVDs built in for those who have forgotten.  This category has been largely abandoned by other manufacturers, but RCA says they are doing very well with it for college students and people who want to have a simple TV installation for their kitchen, guest room, or bedroom.  And, yes, people still do use DVDs.  A recent study indicated that the average U.S. family has well over 100 DVDs.  Even if they never buy another, they still need a way of playing the ones they have.

I was impressed by the energy exhibited by ON and Technicolor in reviving the RCA brand.  And, said an RCA rep, “we’re making money.”

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, display manufacturing, display technology, and display applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Posted by Pete Putman, January 29, 2013 9:20 PM

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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.