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Panasonic Bows First Cable-Ready HDTV

Looking toward a bullish second half of 2003, Panasonic formally unveiled what it expects will be the industry’s first digital-cable-ready television set to custom installers here.

Panasonic plans to deliver a total of six digital-cable-ready HDTV sets over the next 90 days, said Ed Wolff, Panasonic display group merchandising VP. The first model slated to ship — the 53W-inch rear-projection set, model PT-53WXD63 — will carry a $2,299 suggested retail price when it ships at the end of September. It includes an integrated ATSC tuner, two NTSC tuners, picture-in-picture, BBE audio system and the new HDMI-HDCP digital input.

All six planned digital-cable-ready models will have fully integrated ATSC tuners and will produce full HDTV resolution, Wolff said. All will also include slots for forthcoming CableCARDs that cable operators will supply to allow consumers to view authorized scrambled channels.

When used with a CableCARD, the sets will eliminate the need for separate cable-decoder boxes and outboard over-the-air tuners. The new models will also include SD and PCMCIA memory card slots to simplify the viewing of digital photos from many digital cameras on screen.

Wolff did not formally announce model numbers or pricing on the five other digital-cable-ready sets at the firm’s CEDIA press event because final pricing was still being decided. However, he told TWICE that the company would likely ship in November digital-cable-ready LCD-based rear-projection HDTV sets in the 50W- (approximately $3,600 suggested) and 60W-inch (approximately $4,600 suggested) screen sizes. Panasonic will also have a digital-cable-ready 47W-inch CRT-based HDTV set, model PT47WXD63, in October with an approximate suggested retail of $2,100.

Also planned for early November are 53W-inch (PT-53TWD63, approximately $2,500) and 56W-inch (PT-56TWD63, approximately $2,700) CRT-based digital-cable-ready rear-projection sets, which add built-in storage area.

Wolff said that while most of the industry adds an approximate $600 premium for HDTV sets with integrated ATSC tuners, Panasonic is throwing in the integrated CableCARD capability for about the same price.

“I told the factory I wanted to give customers a reason to step to integrated ATSC products. Is there a cost? I’m sure there is. But, we are also investing in this technology as well,” Woff said.

Although at the time of the announcement the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) still had not approved a digital plug-and-play standard for digital cable and consumer electronics products, Wolff said the company was confident all would go smoothly when the FCC discussed the item at its Sept. 10 meeting.

Panasonic was able to jump-start the industry on digital-cable-ready products by signing a licensing agreement with CableLabs last year for unidirectional plug-and-play technology. Hitachi also announced plans to offer digital-cable-ready sets this fall.

Panasonic’s digital-cable-ready sets come in response to a directive from Matsushita Electric president Kunio Nakamara, to “make the products that people want.” They are also a central part of Panasonic’s global marketing strategy, dubbed “the 3 D Value Chain” — focused on digital television, DVD (especially DVD-Ram recording) and SD memory card products. Panasonic’s goal is to be the leader in products from each area.

Paul Liao, Panasonic chief technology officer, said his company “is really looking forward to the coming Christmas season. The economy is on the rebound, the stock market is up for the last six months in a row and there is stronger-than-expected consumer and business spending.”

Panasonic is betting this will foster demand for its digital-cable-ready product introductions, as consumers gravitate toward models that don’t require separate set-top tuners and enable seamless use of high definition cable services.

Panasonic also unveiled two new plasma displays based on the company’s latest HD plasma display panel. The technology incorporates an asymmetrical cell structure and other improvements for enhanced picture detail, color reproduction and a 1280 by 720 pixel resolution, the company said. The 42W-inch TH-42PX20 (ships in September at $6,499 suggested retail) and the 50W-inch TH-50PX20 (ships in October at $8,999) incorporate dual NTSC tuners with picture-in-picture functions and a new sleek design that incorporates four speakers. Both models add HDMI-HDCP digital connectors, three component video inputs, three S-video jacks and three composite inputs.

In LCD TV, Panasonic announced it will ship this fall the 32W-inch PC-32LH1 ($4,499 suggested retail) and the 22W-inch TC-22LH1 ($1,999), both of which produce high-definition 1280 by 720 pixel resolution, a contrast ratio of 500:1 and a brightness level of 450 candelas. Inputs include an HDMI-HDCP connector, and two sets of component video inputs. The 22W-inch model has a four-speaker surround sound system, while the 32W-inch panel has a six-speaker array.

Panasonic also announced the 60W-inch DT-60LC13 (ships in late October at a $3,999 suggested retail) three-panel LCD-based rear-projection HDTV monitor, as the largest model in its 2003 lineup. The micro-device-based display has 1280 by 720 pixel resolution, dual NTSC tuners with picture-in-picture function and both SD and PCMCIA memory card slots with Panasonic’s Photo Viewer software. Connectors include two PC inputs, three HD component video inputs, and three S-video inputs.