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The Joy of Sets

How to parse the pleasure principle when it comes to the new TVs
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

Buying a new TV is easier than ever∧ a lot more complicated. Why easier? Because the basic TV you need to watch the ball game or tonight's episode of "CSI" in a reasonably sized room is remarkably inexpensive today -- figure a quality 27-inch set from a major manufacturer might run $300 or less, and you'll find decent 32-inch sets under $600. What's more, unless you really scrape the bottom of the barrel, you're going to get a handsome picture and at least acceptable sound.

Why more complicated? Because when you go beyond the basics and start looking at big-screen sets with fancy features -- in other words, the TV you really want to own -- prices escalate quickly, technobabble proliferates and the choices can become daunting. What's worse, this isn't like picking a new cell phone that might last a year or two. The TV you buy today is likely to be your companion in the vast wasteland of video entertainment for the better part of a decade.

Here, then, are some pointers to even the playing field a bit when you hit the floor of your favorite electronics store and the smarmy salesman tries mightily to steer you toward the set whose manufacturer is offering the most generous marketing incentive program that week (no matter what he says, the set in question is not the same one he bought for his mother just last week). And yes, you will need to invest some time shopping for a TV. Even among technically excellent sets, each has a distinctive image style that may or may not appeal to you -- one isn't necessarily better than the other, it's just different and, from there, it's a matter of personal preference. What's more, you may discover that a set that looks awful in one store looks absolutely spectacular in another, because of the room lighting, the way the controls have been adjusted, or, very often, the quality of the video source being piped in.



High-definition television (HDTV) is far superior to the standard TV broadcasts we've all received since we were knee-high to a set of rabbit ears. Images are noticeably sharper, with up to six times the level of detail in a traditional TV picture. And, since HDTV is an all-digital signal, it eliminates static, interference and other forms of foufrah that mess with a traditional analog TV picture. Audio is enhanced, too -- traditional TV delivers 2-channel stereo; HDTV pumps 5.1-channel surround sound, just like DVD movies. Down the road, you'll also be able to use the digital HDTV signal to serve up additional information along with your TV programming -- box scores of the other games being played while you're watching baseball, for example.

The buzz over HDTV really took off in April 1997, when the Federal Communications Commission handed over $70 billion worth of additional broadcast spectrum to broadcasters, with the understanding that they would use this new space for digital broadcasting, shift their operations entirely over to digital by 2006, and give the airwaves they've used for traditional analog broadcasting back to the feds. In fact, the movement along this path has been proceeding with exquisite slowness for several reasons.

Broadcasters don't want to spend their own money upgrading transmission and production equipment to the new digital standards. They've been dragging their heels until TV manufacturers themselves have been forced to subsidize these costs out of their own pockets, in an effort to persuade us all to buy HDTV sets. Today, more and more prime-time TV is being broadcast in HDTV thanks to these efforts.

But that's just over-the-air broadcasts, and most of us took down the TV antenna long ago in favor of cable and satellite reception. Cable TV operators have been cool to the idea of transmitting HDTV signals, since it eats into their available network capacity and, while a few (notably Time Warner) have started ramping up, HDTV on cable is still very much the exception rather than the rule. Satellite operators, whose transmission has always been digital, have been a bit more open to change, but here again there are capacity concerns, leading to only a few HDTV channels being offered.

Finally, the movie studios, bless their pencil-pushing hearts, have been loath to release their products to a format that delivers perfect copies into our homes. The long history of foot-dragging in the name of "intellectual property" protection goes back to the fight against player piano rolls in 1908, continues through the battle against home recording via VCRs in 1979, and persists up to the present day, when Hollywood is attempting to dictate to consumer electronics manufacturers the types of copy protection they must build into TV receivers to squash home recording of an HDTV signal altogether. This battle is still raging, producing a floating crap game of connection standards and broadcast formats, lots of legislative lobbying, and, bottom line, delays in delivering the HDTV experience to consumers.

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