The Ode: The plasma television (1997-2014)

The best doesn't always win

(Photo: courtesy Panasonic)

(Photo: courtesy Panasonic)

When Philips introduced its first plasma television sets in 1997, the futuristic flat panel screens long promised us via The Jetsons and Star Trek were finally a reality. Despite an equally futuristic price tag of US$14,999, the 42-inch model immediately had TV junkies scraping their eyeballs off the floor after witnessing colours, resolution and wide viewing angles never thought possible in a home theatre.

Fujitsu, Pioneer and Panasonic quickly joined Philips in the market, with Panasonic soon becoming the most prominent plasma manufacturer, acquiring Pioneer’s technology in 2009 as a big bet on plasma’s future. But the move was too little too late. LCD TVs, with cheaper manufacturing costs and sticker prices, had been eroding plasma’s market share since the mid-2000s, and showed no sign of slowing.

For much of the past decade the plasma vs. LCD debate clogged web forums and left consumers scratching their heads. Were LCDs actually brighter? Was plasma’s “screen burn” tendency really a problem? Both were overblown issues that ultimately damaged the reputation of plasma in the broader consumer consciousness. Videophiles will still pick plasma every time, but the proliferation of cheaper LCDs, particularly in popular 26- to 36-inch sizes plasma’s technology didn’t allow, caused plasma sales to plummet.

According to global market research firm NPD Group, LCDs now account for more than 90% of TV sales—bad news for Panasonic, whose sales dropped by about 25% in the second quarter of this year.

With its TV business posting a 2012 operating loss of more than $900 million, Panasonic reportedly has decided to phase out production of plasma TVs by March 2014. The move is a death knell for plasma, and a blow to the once dominant Japanese television industry as giants like Sony, Sharp and Pioneer increasingly cede the leader board in worldwide sales to Korean brands like Samsung and LG, as well as manufacturers in China and Taiwan.

While TV purists take solace in the emergence of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV displays, plasma takes its place among Betamax, HD-DVD, Sega and other arguably superior formats that eventually lost out to consumer demands for convenience and a low price.