Westinghouse is an old, respected brand in the United States, and you can find Westinghouse TVs everywhere. But are Westinghouse TVs good? If they aren’t, it’s because Westinghouse TVs aren’t what they seem.
Westinghouse TVs are made by Tsinghua Tongfang, a Chinese state-owned electronics company. Other brands made by Tsinghua Tongfang include Seiki and Element.
Who makes Westinghouse TVs?
In 2002, Westinghouse Digital LLC was founded in California. Its business model was simple. It licensed the Westinghouse name and started using it on LCD televisions built overseas. Its televisions were inexpensive, so they sold relatively well, but they also had reliability problems. By 2010, Westinghouse Digital was bankrupt. Westinghouse Digital reorganized as Westinghouse Electronics, a subsidiary of Tsinghua Tongfang. Tsinghua Tongfang is a Chinese state-owned conglomerate who makes consumer electronics and other electrical gear.
How a Chinese company you’ve probably never heard of ended up using the Westinghouse brand is a bit of a long story. If you’re just interested in whether you should buy a Westinghouse TV, scroll down about six paragraphs, or three headings.
Westinghouse Electric and Westinghouse Electronics
The Westinghouse brand dates back to 1886, when George Westinghouse founded it in Pittsburgh. At one time, Westinghouse was a rival to General Electric, and Westinghouse scooped up more than 28,000 patents during the 20th century. And for part of the 20th century, Westinghouse manufactured TVs and radios, but it existed the household appliance business in the 1970s.
Today, the historic Westinghouse company doesn’t make any physical products itself. You now know the company founded by George Westinghouse as Viacom, the owners of CBS. This may or may not surprise you. Westinghouse established the first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, in 1921, and helped to form NBC in cooperation with competitors GE and RCA. No one would buy radios or televisions without content, so Westinghouse invested in the content, and continued to buy TV and radio properties throughout its history.
However, the original Westinghouse lost over a billion dollars in 1990 due to its financial arm making high-risk loans. Westinghouse restructured, divesting itself of its traditional industrial operations and buying up more broadcasting operations, including CBS. By 1997, there wasn’t much left of what we once thought of Westinghouse, and it renamed itself CBS Corporation. CBS and Viacom have merged, split, and re-merged several times over the years. Viacom started as a CBS subsidiary in 1952, with CBS spinning it off in 1971. Viacom and CBS merged in 1999, split into two separate companies again in 2006, then merged again in 2019.
Westinghouse as an undead brand
Westinghouse retains considerable name recognition in the United States. Its owners recognized this, even if they concluded it wasn’t profitable to use the name itself.
In 1998, CBS established Westinghouse Electric as a subsidiary to license the legacy Westinghouse name. This is why you still see the Westinghouse brand on light bulbs, kitchen appliances, and TVs today. Westinghouse is an undead brand, with dozens of separate independent companies using it, with nothing in common except they all pay royalties to Viacom to use it.
When I looked on Target’s web site, I found 53 different products using the Westinghouse name, including microwaves, air fryers, fans, space heaters, and even non-electric products like cookware and cutting boards. And, of course, those televisions.
Westinghouse TVs today
21st-century Westinghouse TVs have always been inexpensive, and generally they’ve been among the most power-efficient TVs on the market. That’s not necessarily much of a surprise, since power efficiency is another line of Tsinghua Tongfang’s business.
But you shouldn’t get the idea that Westinghouse is a premium brand. Common complaints with Westinghouse TVs include poor audio quality, but they also have long-term reliability issues. While the occasional model will get good reviews, most exhibit the same pattern. And when you read the reviews, be sure to check the dates on the reviews. It generally takes 3-6 months for the problems to start showing up, so if the model hasn’t been on the market long, you’re taking a gamble.
A very common complaint you’ll find in product reviews, both from consumer magazines and the reviews on store websites, is that the TV worked for a few months, then developed problems with the picture. In some cases the TV displays an incomplete picture, or stops displaying entirely. While the TVs have a one-year warranty, once you get outside the store’s return policy (generally 90 days), you have to ship the TV to a service center at your own expense. Shipping TVs is expensive, and difficult if you threw out the packaging. This of course negates most of what you save from buying a better brand.
The styling may be a little different, but the overall quality of a Westinghouse TV isn’t much different from a Seiki or Element, two other brands that Tsinghua Tongfang owns and uses. They’re all low-end, budget brands.
One common question I see is why Westinghouse allows their name to be used on low-quality TVs. But Viacom is just selling the name. In theory, when Tsinghua Tongfang’s license expires, Viacom could opt not to renew it, but as long as the brand holds enough recognition that other companies are willing to pay to use it, all Viacom cares about is the licensing revenue.
But aren’t all online reviews negative? Or fake?
Some people put no stock on online reviews. It’s true that people are 5-7 times more likely to write a negative review than a positive one. But when the ratio of negative reviews to positive is significantly higher than 5:1, that’s indicative of a problem. I take online reviews with a grain of salt, but it’s foolish to disregard them entirely. Here are my tips for using online reviews, and spotting fake online reviews.
And judging from the number of negative reviews, the negative reviews certainly aren’t all fake. Fake positive reviews are more common than fake negative reviews, because of the sheer number of brands on the market.
Protecting yourself if you’re going to buy a Westinghouse TV
If you’re going to buy a Westinghouse TV, there are several things you can do to protect yourself. First, find out if the store will take it back if it fails during the warranty period. If you only have 90 days to bring it back, that’s not enough. Try to buy it from a store that will take it back for a year.
I don’t normally recommend extended warranties, but if I bought a Westinghouse TV, I would consider one. That said, the warranties often cost $90. That may very well be more than the price difference between a Westinghouse and a better brand like LG or Samsung.
Finally, if you do buy a Westinghouse TV, save the packaging in case you need it to ship the TV. If you don’t have room to save the packaging, perhaps because you live in an apartment, you’re really better off paying a little extra for a more reliable brand. If you don’t save the packaging, it may end up costing more than $100 to ship. Westinghouse Electronics won’t provide packaging if you have to ship the TV back to them under warranty. Few electronics manufacturers do.
Why is it legal to sell a reputable brand name to a low-quality company?
The other question is why it’s legal for Viacom to sell its Westinghouse brand to a company that makes low quality products. Preventing companies from engaging in such practices is a form of what’s called regulation, and in the United States, running on a platform of regulation isn’t a very good way to get elected. When you hear a politician or a political commentator talk about red tape and efficiency, that’s a person who opposes regulation.
If you’ve been burned by a bad purchase, you have to weigh in your own mind whether the efficiency and lack of red tape was worth it for you.
The red-blooded American way is to let the market sort it out. And in this case the market did once, when the first company to market TVs under the Westinghouse name went bankrupt. The second go-round has turned out much like the first in terms of quality, but with greater longevity.
It’s a waste of both of our time for me to say what should and shouldn’t be legal when it comes to the use of brand names. I can just give you information, so you can be part of the free market sorting it out.