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A Farewell to PDPs – but is the “Superior Product” Losing?

July 10, 2014, 9:07 a.m.
Michael Inouye, Principal Analyst

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Samsung recently announced late 2014 will mark the end of its Plasma TV line and LG has expressed (albeit not entirely official) a similar sentiment and timeline – Panasonic ended Plasma TV production earlier this year.  Reviewers time and time again rated Plasma TVs as among the best performing TVs and many have recently published what can best be described as eulogies to honor the technology.    Despite these reviews most consumers eschewed PDPs for LCD/LED TVs and yet like the reviewers a significant number of devotees and self-proclaimed videophiles are lamenting the demise of what they feel is a superior TV technology.  But is it?

For full disclosure I own a 2010 Panasonic Plasma TV and like other Plasma owners will attest, seeing the PDP and LCD side-by-side made it easier to accept some of its shortcomings like higher energy consumption and image retention.  Despite my preference for the Plasma TV I don’t believe it is the “superior” technology – as a consumer or analyst.  Just because a product has better specs doesn’t make it a superior product.  TVs are consumer products meant to generate revenue for a company, which is trying to build shareholder wealth – the fact that consumers favored LCD TVs makes it the superior product.  Yes retailers didn’t do the technology any favors but early problems left a lasting bitter aftertaste – it also didn’t hurt that for a time LCD TVs cost more than Plasma (i.e. retailers could push the more expensive LCD TV by informing the prospective buyer about all of the problems plaguing Plasma TVs).    

In addition not all consumers prize picture quality above all else – to some screen size might be paramount (large and small, LCD was more accommodating), thinness of the screen, energy efficiencies, or bright room viewing.  Take an exotic sports car for instance, it might boast the best acceleration and handling but it wouldn’t suit everyone’s needs – even if pricing were held equal.  Those two seats (low to the ground and cramped) for instance wouldn’t work well for extended familes, the stiff suspension probably wouldn’t suit someone who lives in an area with poor road conditions, forget fuel efficiency, and can you imagine the slow driver trying to ease out from a stop light in a Lamborghini?  The sports car like the Plasma TV has its niche, but unlike the sports car, Plasma TV companies couldn’t charge a price high enough to sustain that niche status – and unlike the auto industry differentiation is far more difficult in the TV business.  LCD TVs have also greatly narrowed the gap in performance so side-by-side comparisons are not as dramatic as in years past. 

It was also reportedly too costly to develop and manufacture 4K Plasma displays - this alone capped the technology’s future prospects.  So rather than support the minority of consumers who preferred Plasma over LCD the industry is rightfully moving on.  Once the last Plasma TVs are shipped it won’t leave a lasting mark on the flat panel TV business, unit shipments were already down to the inconsequential level, but nonetheless the TVs will be missed by some…maybe 4K or OLED will help ease the sting when it comes time to replace their PDPs.  Then again people still bring up Pioneer Elite’s Kuro Plasma TV as if it were some mythological super TV crafted by the TV gods (in Japan) and sent down to Earth (from shipping companies) so mere mortals like us could gaze upon TV perfection…so maybe the sting will last a bit longer.