NEW YORK – Panasonic kicked off its first TV model year without a plasma set in more than a decade, announcing a TV-distribution partnership with Best Buy and unveiling step-up LED LCD TVs and its Ultra HD line.
In a press preview last week Panasonic showed the fruits of a new step-up edge-lit LED LCD TV initiative using its “Life + Screen, Beyond Smart TV” technology, including models from the flagship AX800-series Ultra HD TV line.
At the same time, the company revealed a significantly scaled-back TV-distribution strategy that will see a number of TV model series sold exclusively through Best Buy stores, including the aforementioned flagship Ultra HD TVs, which are launching through Best Buy’s Magnolia departments and Panasonic.com this spring, according to Panasonic executives.
In fact, Henry Hauser, Panasonic’s merchandising VP, acknowledged that “a large majority” of the company’s TV sales volume would be handled through Best Buy in 2014.
“The TV business has been a very tough business, and Panasonic has had to make some adjustments to our marketing direction based on necessity, so Best Buy has become a good primary partner for us,” Hauser explained.
Absent from any current marketing plans to date are the A/V specialty accounts that manufacturers have typically relied on to help launch new technologies — like Ultra HD.
Although rivals Sony and Samsung recently announced vendor-managed showrooms in Best Buy stores in recent weeks, and Panasonic just launched a “Lumix Lounge” in the Unique Photo superstore in Fairfield, N.J., Hauser said the company has no plans to implement a vendor-managed showroom in Best Buy at this time.
Instead, Best Buy is getting near-exclusive access to several TV series, making Panasonic almost a house brand for the big-box chain. The practice has been employed in the past by others, like Sanyo — in which Panasonic holds an investment stake — which builds sets almost exclusively for Walmart.
Hauser said Panasonic will continue to promote the brand with advertising in 2014, but is concentrating most of that budget and effort on digital platforms.
In the meantime, Panasonic has refocused much of its resources on several new directions developing a variety of technologies for the business-to-business markets.
As for the new consumer TV line, Panasonic is tasked this year with convincing consumers and retailers it still serves that its edge-lit LED LCD TVs are better than, or at least up to the same quality level as, the plasma TV line it abandoned late last year.
That decision came after the company’s ZT plasma series TVs won rave reviews and shoot-outs for having one of the best pictures in the business.
Panasonic’s product managers highlighted the series carrying the company’s Life+Screen system, which is basically an intuitive voice- and face-recognition- activated interface with a proximity sensor and a built-in camera that work together to automatically display customized information like weather forecasts, messages, the time and more for up to five users in a household.
Personalized home screens offer an info bar and program suggestion listings tailored to the viewing preferences of each user.
The system also employs a remote Cloud system, allowing users to store and view favorite photos and stream personalized entertainment content. A smartphone can be used to share video memos and text messages with the Viera TV from outside the house.
For personalized content recommendations, viewers can register their favorite programs with a “My” button on the included Touch Pad remote to help improve the system’s selections for each user.
To search for particular programs, viewers can simply speak the title or an actor’s name into a mic in the remote to have recommendations appear on screen.
Titles are selected from a wide cross section of sources, including over-the-top (OTT) Internet video, collected photos and VOD selections among others.
The second part of Panasonic’s TV push for 2014 includes the launch of its new AX800 series Ultra HD sets, which use an improved up-scaling system to help viewers derive 4K-like benefits from lowerresolution content.
The AX800 line includes two models in the 58- ($3,299 suggested retail) and 65-inch ($4,499) screen sizes. An 85-inch version is expected later in the year.
All Ultra HDTV models in 2014 include 3D capability, are THX certified, and conform to the DCI 98 percent color space professional standard by using new phosphors in the LED system to achieve wider color levels.
A Studio Master Drive in 2014 Ultra HD sets is comprised of a Super Chroma Drive for color accurate color reproduction in dark spaces and Black Gradation Drive for smooth black gradation levels in dark spaces. This allows users to adjust the image to the Rec. 709 color space in extremely fine brightness steps, for accurate color expression at virtually any brightness.
Unlike some of its competitors, Panasonic has no content partners on board immediately to discuss forthcoming native Ultra HD content plans, although Hauser assured that Panasonic is in discussions with several leading streaming partners to have them on board eventually.
The TVs, meanwhile, have much of the technology built in to support most streaming Ultra HD content, including HEVC/H.265 decoding, an HDMI 2.0 input connection, HDCP 2.2 copy protection (needed for some Ultra HD material) and the latest DisplayPort 1.2a connector, allowing use with forthcoming 3,840 by 2,160/60 fps content. Panasonic will be one of the only set makers to offer the port, which is expected to be used in some high-performance PCs and video gaming systems later in the year.
Other Life+Screen-enhanced model series offer FullHD 1080p resolution and include the TC-55AS680 series (a Best Buy exclusive starting in July) with a 240Hz panel; the TC-55AS650 (available on Panasonic. com to start), with 3D capability; the 60-inch TC-60AS640 (a Best Buy exclusive), which includes a TV and a soundbar in one package; and the 530 (a.k.a. 5 series), which is an “open distribution” entry Life+Screen smart-TV line, offering a 120Hz panel.