Panasonic's plasma TV exit is the end of a brilliant era

31st Oct 2013 | 15:00

Panasonic's plasma TV exit is the end of a brilliant era

Plasma tech has run its course - the future is 4K and OLED

It's been, in all honesty, the most protracted screen demise since Julius Caesar exited Carry on Cleo protesting "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me."

But now Panasonic has finally, officially, unequivocally announced it's getting out of the plasma game for good.

The news will probably surprise no one – although a senior European executive told me only a few weeks ago, just as the rumour mill began to churn again, that Panasonic Europe had a plasma range pencilled in for 2014.

"To be honest we don't know what's going on, Japan will decide when Japan will decide…" he confided at the time.

The Corporation will shutter its only operational facility, the Amagasaki P4 factory in Osaka, in March 2014. Sibling facilities in Amagasaki and Ibaraki have already been mothballed. Unsustainable losses are the simple reason for the brand's decision.

The writing on the plasma wall

In truth, the hiragana has been on the wall every since Kazuhiro Tsuga took over the presidency of the company. Charged with restructuring a broken business following years of dire financial results, he made it clear from the outset that no area of the business was to be spared in a quest for profitability, and Panasonic's TV division has been a financial burden for years.

At their height, the company's many TV factories could churn out over a million plasma screens a month. Former president Fumio Ohtsubo had banked the farm on volume production keeping prices low, but the market oversaturated, the global economy tanked and the business duly buckled.

We talked with Tsuga-san about the whole sorry mess at the 2013 CES, and he winced openly about the cost of his TV operation. "TV is one of the toughest businesses, not only for us but the whole industry," he admitted. "Prices are getting cheaper and cheaper as display sizes get bigger and bigger," he said with genuine dismay.

Tsuga went on to describe both 4K and OLED as "important new screen technologies - we have to go forward. There are various possibilities that we have to think about. The important point is that OLED will develop fast."

Earlier this year Panasonic confirmed that it had finished all research and development into plasma, declaring it had taken the technology as far as was economically viable. The swansong was the ZT line, in the UK solely represented by the TX-P60ZT65, a screen which has been widely hailed as the most advanced plasma display ever made. It transpired to be a parting gift for fans.

The future is 4K OLED

Of course, Panasonic's plasma capitulation has a greater implication. It signposts the end of a brilliant era in TV technology, one dominated by the once mighty but now humbled Japanese consumer electronics industry.

For connoisseurs, today's news will be met with a degree of understandable sadness. Panasonic, along with Pioneer, made plasma the tech of choice for enthusiasts. When rival LCD tellies were little more than grotty torches, PDP offered the only quality option in town.

I own plasma screens from both Panasonic and Pioneer, and they continue to impress with their image quality. But I'm sanguine about Panasonic's decision.

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The brutal truth is plasma has run its course. It's always been more power hungry then rival displays, which clearly doesn't sit well with Panasonic's accelerating eco agenda, and it was never, ever going to be reinvented for a 4K future.

The game's not over entirely over though. Earlier this year, when visiting LG in Seoul, we were told the Korean company had no plans to pull the plasma plug, at least while panels continued to turn a profit.

LG has positioned plasma as a low cost option, and its cheapo 720p displays certainly represent great value for savvy shoppers. Samsung also has an ongoing plasma business. Ultimately though, evolution will take its toll.

My advice to plasma fans is doff your cap in respect, celebrate past triumphs, maybe grab a Panasonic panel while you can – they are bloody good after all – but then look unflinchingly toward to a new era of OLED and 4K Ultra HD, both areas in which Panasonic seems very intent on pursuing.

Of course, if you hear of anyone looking to buy up some prime factory space, I know someone who's got plenty spare – TV-making robots thrown in for free.

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