There was no cocktail waitress suspended from the ceiling, no fairy figure splashing in the pool. No big light show, no splashy use of the Bellagio’s fountains, not even the obligatory toast with the colorful, custom-crafted cocktail of the night. Samsung’s CES TV preview event, to which the consumer electronics giant invited select industry press Monday night in Las Vegas ahead of Tuesday’s official press conference, was tame and subdued when compared to previous years.
Maybe someone finally told Samsung that its gestures of grandeur don’t really translate. But the relatively low-key event was also indicative of a bigger trend: With TV viewers increasingly being glued to their mobile phones, big-panel manufacturers are struggling to figure out how to position their wares. “We realize how difficult it is to predict where the market will go,” said HS Kim, executive vice president of Samsung’s visual display unit during his prepared remarks.
Those are new tones for an industry that never had any troubles with coming up with superlatives. Bigger, brighter, louder long sold TV sets by the boatload, and the Consumer Electronics Show was the annual festival of excess for the TV industry. Manufacturers would outdo each other with the size of their screens, showing off 120-inch flat screen TVs that needed to be transported with special equipment, or TVs that bent themselves into different shapes with the push of a button.
Some of this was never meant to be an actual product, much of it was unaffordable for most. But the message was clear: The sky is the limit, and anyone who’d want the latest and greatest would need to ditch that old TV from last year, which just wasn’t super ultra enough to deliver movies like they were meant to be watched.
Except, consumers aren’t actually falling for that message anymore. TV shipments are down, with IHS reporting the biggest annual decline in five years for Q2 of 2015. And things aren’t looking up: “IHS expects 2015 TV shipments worldwide will decline 4 percent to 226 million units, with no growth expected in 2016, remaining at 226 million units,” said a spokesperson via email.
Samsung seems to be weathering the storm, but others aren’t faring so well: Sharp sold its North American TV business to Hisense in 2015, Panasonic is closing its TV factories, and Sony is thinking about getting out of the TV business altogether.
The industry is betting big on 4K and HDR to regain growth, and there are still plenty of gimmicks on display at CES that make it look like nothing has changed. LG, for example, showed off a OLED TV set during its CES keynote that is just as think as a stack of four credit cards, as LG’s VP of marketing David WanderWaal gleefully pointed out.
Disregard for a moment that this is likely how many cards you will need to pay for it, and ask yourself instead: Where have you heard that pitch before? Exactly: mobile phones.
Phones coincidentally are also emerging as one of traditional TV’s fiercest competitor. With bigger and better screens, mobile devices take up more of our time, and are increasingly being used for video viewing, and not just for short clips. YouTube revealed last summer that the average mobile video viewing session now lasts 40 minutes — up from 20 minutes in 2014. In September, Yahoo reported that consumers now spend more time every day interacting with the apps on their phone than watching TV. And data from Ericsson’s ConsumerLab also shows how the mobile screen is winning over the TV screen amongst younger consumers.
To be fair, many consumers are still buying TV, and watching lots of it. But the television is starting to lose its golden pedestal. It’s no longer the center of our lives, instead becoming just another appliance.
TV manufacturers know this, and the smarter ones are getting ready for this new world. Samsung announced Tuesday that it’s new high-end smart TVs are now doubling as hubs for its Internet of Things technology dubbed Smartthings. Owners of these TVs will be able to control their connected lightbulbs, get a video feed from their front door and check their thermostat from the comfort of their couch.
That’s a big deal for these kinds of connected devices, which have been seeing limited uptake due to the need to buy special hubs. But it’s also a new role for the TV. Instead of being the king of entertainment, it’s becoming a building block in the connected home. Oh, and you can also watch television with it, if you are not too busy playing with your phone.