Herald Journal Columns
August 21, 2006, Herald Journal

From appliance to idol


By Ivan Raconteur

Staff Writer

What was once a simple appliance is beginning to dominate our homes and take over our lives.

The electronic monsters to which I refer are our televisions.

The extent to which things have changed became clear to me recently when I helped my ex-wife find a new television.

The previous model had developed an irksome habit of intermittently compressing the picture to a narrow band about an inch wide. We took this as a sign that it had come to the end of its useful life.

I soon learned that a great deal has changed, technology-wise, since 1991, when I last purchased a set.

One of the troublesome things about technology is that, not only do things keep changing, but the rate at which they change seems to be accelerating.

Television development evolved fairly slowly during the first several decades.

Scottish inventor John Logie Baird gave the first demonstration of a working television system to the Royal Institution in 1926.

Eight years later, Philo Farnsworth demonstrated the first all-electric system at the Franklin Institution in Philadelphia.

In those early days, the broadcasts were strictly black and white.

The first broadcast of color television was made by NBC (which was owned by RCA) in 1941.

Public exposure to this broadcast was practically nonexistent, since the color systems of the day were not compatible with the black and white sets, and color sets were not yet available to the public.

There were less than 8,000 TV sets in the US when the War Production Board halted the manufacture of television and radio equipment for civilian use from April 1942 to October 1945.

The first network color broadcast took place in 1951, but this system was short-lived, because it was not compatible with existing sets, and there were only about 30 prototype sets in the New York area. Apparently advertisers were unwilling to sponsor programs that no one would see.

The National Television System Committee (NTSC) worked from 1951 to 1953 to develop a color system that was compatible with existing black and white sets, and would meet FCC quality standards.

The first broadcast using the NTSC-RCA “compatible color” system was made in 1953, and the first coast-to-coast broadcast featured the Tournament of Roses parade on January 1, 1954.

There were some important advances made in television technology between 1926 and 1954, but progress came relatively slowly.

By 1964, only 3.1 percent of US television households had a color set, and the number of color sets in the US did not exceed black and white sets until 1972.

The first television set in my life was an ancient affair with a black and white picture and very little programming to chose from.

In order to change the channel, not only did one have to get up and walk across the room and turn the large dial on the front of the set, one had to first apply for planning permission from my grandmother.

We lived in a duplex, with the family upstairs, and grandma downstairs. She had survived a stroke, which left her confined to the house, and control of the television was strictly her domain.

There were times when she was flexible about what we could watch, but the time slots occupied by her favorite programs, such as The Lawrence Welk Show, and Raymond Burr playing detective Robert T. Ironside, were non-negotiable.

It was a big day in our house when my old man brought home our first color television set.

The 13-inch screen was small by today’s standards, but it was a common size then.

It should be noted that the 13-inch models actually represented a dramatic increase in screen size, and were a portent of what was to come.

The least expensive pre-World War II sets in the US were image-only models with a 3-inch screen that cost $125 – equivalent to about $1,732 in today’s dollars.

The first television set that I owned was a second-hand model that my old man bought for me while I was in high school. It was a black and white specimen with a mechanical remote control that was connected to the set by a cable, which seemed quirky even at the time.

One pressed the only button, and a mechanism would change the channel. It only went in one direction, which was not a hardship, since it did not take long to scroll through four channels.

The recently retired model, in contrast, was actually fairly advanced when I purchased it in 1991.

The screen was not huge, but at 27 inches it was by far the largest I had owned.

It had picture-in-picture, a feature that allowed one to flip back and forth between two programs and annoy one’s guests.

In the intervening years, however, technology has accelerated at an alarming rate.

As I researched the options, I found that there are a lot more questions that one must answer than there were the last time around.

One must first decide whether to go with direct view CRT (the old standard) or flat panel LCD or plasma, or, for larger sizes, rear or front projection models.

Then one has to decide between flat and curved screens, digital versus analog technology, and which aspect ratio fits one’s viewing habits.

Those who watch mostly movies and DVDs may want to chose the 16:9 widescreen format as opposed to the standard 4:3 format. The widescreen format makes it possible to view movies in their original format, rather than being cut off, or compressed into a “letterbox” version (black bars at the top and bottom of the screen).

When shopping for televisions, one soon finds oneself swimming in acronyms, LCD, HDTV, DLP LCoS, CRT-RP, and so on.

It may be best to just go to the store and pick out a pretty one that is in one’s price range, and bring it home.

The set Rob selected was widescreen LCD model.

One of the biggest advantages of the new technology became clear to me before I even opened the box.

The old set weighed about 200 pounds, and its shape and size made it nearly impossible to carry through doorways without performing impossible contortions.

I hauled the regal old beast out to the car in preparation for the ride to the recycling center, and bringing in the new one was a dream by comparison.

Even though the screen size was larger, it was only a fraction of the width, and at only 35 pounds, it was a joy to move.

Apart from the changes in technology, there is no escaping the fact that TVs are growing.

Screen sizes from 27 to 32 inches are becoming standard, and sizes up to 46 inches are not uncommon.

In the LCD category, the record for the largest screen has changed hands a few times in recent months, with entries over 100 inches.

Sony recently announced the introduction of a 120-inch behemoth with a screen the size of a queen-size bed.

One would be hard-pressed to find anything currently on the air that would justify a display of that size.

Screens are getting so big that builders are being forced to build bigger houses just to make room for them.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average new home in 2005 was 2,434 square feet, 62 percent larger than the average home built in 1970.

With family sizes decreasing, it seems that one of the factors driving the increase in home sizes must be to accommodate giant TVs.

A television with a screen size of 103 inches requires about 7.5 feet of wall space, and the minimum recommended viewing distance is about 13 feet.

We are taking the home theater experience to a whole new level, and at this pace, we will soon be living in theaters dedicated to these objects of worship.

It is a bit disturbing to see that we could soon be designing houses around our televisions, rather than buying TVs to fit our homes.

Instead of arranging our living spaces to promote conversation and interaction between people, we arrange them to facilitate worship of our electronic gods, and that is frightening.