Hirai’s One Sony Vision Cloudier in Vegas After Film Loss: Tech

Jan 06, 2014 9:46 pm ET

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Jan. 7 (Bloomberg) -- As Sony Corp.’s Kazuo Hirai delivers his first keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show today, he’ll push a message he’s delivered before: a breakup of the consumer electronics giant isn’t in the cards.

Since taking over as chief executive officer in April 2012, Hirai has trumpeted what he calls a One Sony vision -- that he can deliver better returns making televisions, mobile phones and consoles under the same roof as movies and TV shows, video games and music.

His challenge this time around: A $180 million quarterly loss at Sony Pictures Entertainment gave credence to calls made last year by activist investor Daniel Loeb, who urged the company to separate the unit from electronics. While exclusive films and TV shows helped Sony gain an early lead in a new generation of TVs called 4K, the second-quarter loss makes One Sony a harder sell in Las Vegas.

“His CES keynote speech is certainly going to be an important stage for Hirai,” Junya Ayada, a Tokyo-based analyst at Daiwa Securities Group, said by phone. “It’s uncertain whether he can deliver a strong message that can impress investors.”

To make One Sony a reality, Hirai has increased collaboration at the company’s disparate units. In 2012, he sent camera engineers to the company’s phone division to give the Xperia Z handset advanced photography capabilities.

‘Mission Statement’

Sony’s electronics and entertainment teams created the Ultra HD Media Player in eight months, unveiling a device capable of downloading and storing about 100 ultra high definition movies. The player, stocked with Sony movies, has helped spur sales of 4K, or ultra high definition, TV sets.

The company has the unique ability to develop products products customers can’t even imagine, Mike Fasulo, president of Sony Electtronics, said yesterday at a CES press conference. The company introduced Lifelog, an app that connects to Sony products and online services, ranging from fitness to music and games, and offer recommendations based on users’ habits.

At CES, Hirai will try to convince reporters, retailers and investors there are more successes to come. Just talking about mobile phones and 4K TVs won’t be enough to break new ground, Daiwa’s Ayada said.

“Kaz will present a revitalized mission statement,” said Richard Doherty, principal at researcher Envisioneering Group. “We’re going to see a multilingual guy who knows the world markets and is not breaking a sweat. Still, he’s only been in the seat 18 months and still finding how many messes were being covered over.”

No Flash

Hirai’s speech will focus on cloud computing, touting potentially unique benefits Tokyo-based Sony can deliver by linking its consumer electronics and software -- movies, TV shows and music -- through the Web-based Sony Entertainment Network, according to John Dolak, a Sony spokesman.

“It’s not going to be flash,” Dolak said. “It’s really going to be Kaz being himself and walking through Sony content and hardware and where we are marrying the two.”

Hirai, 53, faces a skeptical audience that has seen previous Sony executives, including Howard Stringer and Kunitake Ando, tout similar visions with “Spider-Man” tie-ins to Blu- ray sales and live “Jeopardy” tapings at the show, only to fall flat with follow-through sales and profit, said Doherty.

Ultra HD

The company sees Web-delivered content from Sony’s TV, movie and music units as crucial to turning around the struggling television manufacturing unit, which hasn’t made a profit in nine years and ranks fourth globally in revenue, according to Statista, a research service.

Sony has been squeezed at the high end by Samsung Electronics Co. and pummeled at the low end by Chinese TV manufacturers including Hisense Electric Co. and TCL Corp.

Ultra HD, or 4K, represents a new generation of TV products with greater resolution than the current HD.

The $699 Ultra HD Media Player went on sale in late September, and helped make Sony’s 4K television sets, priced from $3,000 to $25,000, the No. 1 seller over Samsung, LG Electronics Inc. and several Chinese companies, which were offering similar models for thousands of dollars less. Over the U.S. holidays, Sony offered 4K buyers a free download of “Elysium,” starring Matt Damon, and its player features remastered Sony titles such as “Lawrence of Arabia.”

“Sony is cleaning up because they have a solution that nobody else has,” said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes CES. “For the first time in their history, they’ve fully integrated their motion picture company into a must-have product.”

Samsung Response

Samsung, meanwhile, announced streaming content deals for its own 4K TVs at CES. The company is now surpassing Sony on head-to-head sales, Joe Stinziano, Samsung’s senior vice president for home entertainment, said from the stage yesterday.

Hirai has also scored a hit with its PlayStation 4 game console. The player was mostly sold out in North American shops over the holidays, indicating continued strong demand after its Nov. 15 release.

The PS4 will probably sell 37.7 million units over the next three years, compared with 29 million Xbox One players from Microsoft Corp., according to Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.

Sony may announce that it plans to stream 4K content to the PlayStation 4, Doherty said.

Cutting Costs

While trying to create a new mission for the 68-year-old company, Hirai is showing some flexibility to revise his so-far unproven strategy.

Eight months after hedge-fund billionaire Loeb, who reported holding 70 million Sony shares or equivalents in June, called for the company to sell part of its entertainment assets in a public offering, Hirai is reducing costs while investing in growth areas.

Last month, Sony agreed to sell its Gracenote unit to Tribune Co. and was reported by the Nikkei newspaper to be reviewing possible cuts in electronics and at its U.S. headquarters.

Sony is also cutting $250 million in expenses at the entertainment units over two years, part of Hirai’s plan to boost profit and deflect calls to break up the company. Box- office flops including “White House Down” hurt second-quarter performance at the movie unit, which Loeb criticized for having a “bloated corporate structure.” Sony rejected his demand for a partial sale of entertainment assets.

Pitching 4K

Hirai also is reducing the number of films produced by its Columbia Pictures, shifting spending more toward television production and media networks, and identifying more savings, Sony told investors and analysts in November at its Culver City, California, film studio.

The changes, along with investor attention driven by Loeb’s investment and improving prospects for Japan’s economy, all helped to spur a 91 percent gain for the stock in 2013. The shares fell 1.3 percent to 1,802 yen yesterday in Tokyo.

As a maker of content, Sony has a unique ability to tout its ties to ultra HD from the lens to the living room. It uses its own 4K cameras to film productions, sells digital equipment to movie theaters and even hires its own sales associates to walk consumers through their options at local Best Buy shops.

Yet it faces pressure from low-cost Chinese manufacturers that are eyeing the nascent market for their own gains. In 2013, 1.9 million 4K sets were sold worldwide, including just 60,000 in the U.S. Those numbers are expected to rise to 12.7 million and 554,000, respectively, this year, according to research firm DisplaySearch.

Chinese Threat

With the new TVs, Sony, LG and Samsung are trying to prevent the missteps of previous product introductions that resulted in price wars.

To do so, they’re pointing customers to software in their sets that can deliver better pictures on-screen and access more content. The companies also want to contrast their sets with those of some Chinese makers that may not meet emerging broadcast standards for 4K, which refers to almost 4,000 lines of horizontal resolution.

LG has introduced sets that use WebOS software purchased from Hewlett-Packard Co. to make shows easier to discover, including streaming services from Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. in the same search as regular TV programs. Hisense and TCL countered by adding software from Roku Inc. to connect their sets to the Web.

Low End

Amid the jockeying, Hirai is trying to prove Sony is best equipped to connect one product to others and deliver similar experiences across smartphones, tablets, game consoles and TVs.

With 49 percent of U.S. households earning less than $50,000, Sony products may be “aspirational” to many consumers, said Phil Molyneux, non-executive chairman of Sony Electronics’ U.S. unit.

“On the other side, there is another 25 percent of the household income that can afford and jump into our market,” Molyneux said in early December. “That’s the market we need to understand and that’s where we’ve been connected and focused.”

--With assistance from Andy Fixmer in Los Angeles. Editors: Rob Golum, Anthony Palazzo