Is Plasma TV Dead?
GLARE: Plasma TVs have fallen out of favour and Panasonic is being hit the hardest.
Panasonic, one of the last major TV manufacturers to champion plasma TVs, is now probably regretting that decision. The company just posted a US$10 billion loss for the year, and one of its biggest losers is the plasma TV category, where sales fell way short of expectations.
Plasma TV sales only hit about 59 per cent of what the company had predicted. Revenue on Panasonic’s balance sheet from plasma sets was US$3.5 billion, down from US$6 billion the year before.
Once the hottest kind of TV you could get, the plasma TV has seen tough times in recent years. Many manufacturers (notably, Pioneer) have abandoned the technology, noting a lack of consumer demand. After Panasonic acquired Pioneer’s industry-leading plasma tech in 2009, it began a valiant effort to promote and market the advantages of plasma TV. Looking at the numbers today, it clearly hasn’t worked.
The question remains: Why has plasma display technology fallen so far out of favor with TV buyers? A combination of factors in the industry and the consumer market have conspired to shut plasma TVs out of showrooms – and consumer living rooms.
“Plasma is a great technology that is suffering,” says Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate, a display-analysis company. “It has some advantages over LCDs but also has some disadvantages as well.”
On the plus side, plasmas can create much darker blacks, have excellent viewing angles, more accurate color and no motion blur, Soneira says. However, LCDs are much brighter, which can be an advantage in well-lit rooms, which tends to be the case at retail. They also don’t weigh as much and consume less power than plasma sets.
Besides those technical details, there’s the perception that LCD technology is newer, and therefore superior. It’s not – LCD screens had been around for years before the first plasma sets came out, but LCD technology hadn’t been adapted for larger displays until the last decade. Big-screen LCDs came to places like Best Buy well after plasma models, though, so to consumers it was the “hot new thing” – a mindset that LCD makers such as Samsung and Sharp were only too happy to aggressively exploit.
As the industry began to shift toward LCD, the technology has improved greatly since its debut, dulling if not altogether nullifying plasma sets’ many onscreen advantages. Meanwhile, the manufacturing of panels consolidated around just a few large-scale companies, making LCDs cheaper to produce for everyone.
There was also the dreaded “burn-in” issue, where customers believed watching the same material continuously (like a headline scroll on a news channel) would permanently “burn” the image into a plasma screen. It’s a real issue, but it actually takes much longer use than any normal person would watch a single image. In addition, new features on plasma sets all but eliminate the problem. Still, burn-in got a lot of press, and the damage was done.
Finally, there’s the simple fact that people don’t buy TVs that often. At this point, pretty much everyone who was going to buy an HDTV has done so, and novel technologies like 3D aren’t doing much to convince consumers to upgrade again. Even Panasonic’s LCD numbers fell about 30 per cent short of expectations, and the size of the TV market has been shrinking from a peak of 35 million sets sold in 2009, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. There’s clearly a general cooling of the TV market in general.
However, the falling demand for TVs has hit plasma particularly hard.
It’s a shame, because even though LCD tech has shown a lot of improvement, plasma displays have inherent advantages, primarily because the tech doesn’t require a backlight – unlike LCDs, which twist crystals in individual pixels to affect the light passing through, plasma pixels illuminate themselves. Before Pioneer stopped making plasma TVs, it had demonstrated models with theoretically infinite contrast and razor-thin designs, showing off the benefits of a plasma display.
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