How the Idiot
Box grew up
this article was updated in May 1999)
If you're a
typical baby boomer - or younger - you grew up with TV. Where the second
world war generation and its parents' families used to cluster around
the radio, listening to the latest serial, variety, or comedy show, boomers
were given visuals with the same shows, and thus spared the awful task
of having to use their imaginations.
The early TV
shows, in the so-called "Golden Age," were more or less radio
programs with pictures. The obvious link with the Hollywood studios was
fought bitterly by those same studios, who thought people who stayed in
front of the boob tube wouldn't go to the movie houses. They were dead
wrong, of course, but at the time they looked at TV as unwanted competition
rather than an incredible marketing opportunity.
can smell a buck with the best of 'em, otherwise we would never have been
subjected to movies like "I Spit on your Grave." But TV was
still a little box in the living room, while movies were a larger
than life experience that, due to Hollywood's desire to offer something
different from the TV experience, gave you widescreen action and sometimes
even stereo sound. Oh, yeah, and for the most part, movies gave you colour,
while TV didn't (and even when it did it wasn't very good).
you wanted to slum, you stayed home with TV, while movies were, well,
"That's entertainment," (to rip off a phrase from MGM).
And that's pretty
much how it stayed until the latter half of the 1970's, when Sony had
the unmitigated gall to introduce something called "the Betamax."
It was this machine that began the video revolution, and we should all
in gratitude to Sony Corporation.
with the VCR, viewers were freed from the tyranny of the broadcasters.
No longer were we forced to watch what they wanted us to see when they
wanted us to see it. Suddenly, we could record a TV program and watch
it when it was convenient for us. Better still, you could
record one show while you watched another! After all, it seemed then (as
now) that on the rare occasions when there was actually a good show on,
(the exception to the rule of TV being a 'vast wasteland') there'd be
two on different channels simultaneously, and you'd have to choose between
them. "Sweeps Months" are a perfect example of this: when networks
pull out all the stops to offer their best, they all do it at the same
now own at least one VCR and, if you've managed to figure out how to program
it, you can set your own viewing habits. You can record a show, rent a
movie, or play back something you shot yourself with your camcorder or
of choice is great. Just think about the World Wide Web around you and
the cornucopia of tidbits it offers!
Seen 'Round the World
It was the VCR
that was ultimately responsible for the video revolution. Look at it this
way; before you could watch movies on tape (or disc, the first generations
of which were introduced within a couple of years of consumer VCR's -
thus confusing the marketplace and unfortunately relegating the disc format
to the background until the advent of the remarkable DVD)
there was little reason to expect more from your TV than a tinny little
speaker and a colour picture that, while better than black and white,
was a far cry from what's available on today's cheapest sets.
decided to stay home, however, they wanted to recreate the theatre experience
as best they could. This led to a few pioneering videophiles plugging
the "audio out" jack on their VCR into the "tape in"
jacks on their stereo. The result was still crummy, mono sound, but it
was a vast improvement over what the TV's chintzy little audio amplifier
and speaker could put out.
Then along came
stereo VCR's and, while the sound quality didn't improve much (except
that you got two channels of crummy audio instead of one), you were one
step closer to the real theatrical experience. Hi-Fi (first introduced
on beta VCR's and followed swiftly by VHS) raised the audio ante substantially,
and is still used today.
too, because by the time Hi-Fi came out most movies were being released
to theaters in high quality stereo or in a new beast called Dolby Surround
and the video generation was demanding better sound from their expensive
VCR's automatically gave you the Dolby surround information that was being
encoded on the tapes, so it only made sense that consumer should be able
to buy Dolby surround decoders for their homes. This wish came true via
standalone, add-on "black boxes" that, while crude by today's
standards, finally gave fledgling home theatres the rear channel effects
that made people's mouths drop when 'Star Wars' and its successors and
imitators played the movie houses.
the Dolby surround decoder found its way into conventional audio components
like receivers, which by that time were adding video switching capabilities
(not a big deal, just an extra couple of circuits and buttons for the
most part) to increase sales in an audio market that was quickly being
overshadowed by the public's fascination with video. Dolby Pro-Logic (which
added the vital centre front dialogue channel) then hit the home scene,
and home theatre sound potential reached the level of the movie theatre.
Now we have
Lucasfilm's THX sound and the latest DVD's come with Dolby Surround AC-3
Digital and/or DTS audio, which take Dolby Pro-Logic to the next technological
level and match what's available in theatres.
Now, if only
you could make your TV picture match a movie theatre's
TV Grows Up
manufacturers can smell a buck with the best of 'em, too, and they heard
the plaintive cries for "MORE PICTURE;" so TV's started getting
bigger, better, and positively bristling with features. Direct view TV's,
the normal type of set with which we all grew up, have evolved from a
maximum screen size of 26 inches diagonally to 40 inches, with corresponding
quantum leaps in picture quality. Meanwhile, projection TV's have evolved
from 50 inch "front projectors" (where the 'guns' are in front
of the screen like a movie projector - the early models used a swing-out
mirror to bounce the image onto the screen) to 61 inch "rear projectors"
(self-contained units like a gigantic wall unit, with the screen on the
We should also
mention the LCD (liquid crystal display) front projection TV's, which
show a lot of promise. In our opinion, however, they're quickly becoming
rivals for your TV dollars; earlier models, because of the way they work,
looked as if you're watching through a screen door. They're getting better
and more competitive all the time, though.
LCD TV's also
work very well as small screens (4 inches or so diagonally), as camcorder
viewfinders, and even as the monitor for portable DVD players.
Today, the home
theatre market is dominated by 27 inch and larger direct view, and 46
inch and larger rear projection TV's. All of these have gotten remarkably
better over the years, but none so much as the rear projection set.
TV's used to be bulky and dim. Now they're quite slim and have pictures
that rival their direct view brethren (though they're still not quite
as good). The tradeoff between screen size and picture quality is getting
less noticeable with each model year and that's great.
Bells and Whistles
effects started cropping up on TV's and VCR's in the late 1980's, the
most popular of which has been PIP (picture in picture, a small, secondary
screen inside your main one). PIP is okay, and can be useful if you want
to keep track of one program (or a tape) while you're watching another.
It's most useful, however, if the TV (or VCR) comes with two tuners built
in. Otherwise, you need to have two video components (like a TV and VCR)
to use it.
Of course, they
don't often tell you that in the store
TV sound has
also improved by leaps and bounds, though in our opinion if you want to
do it right, don't worry about your TV's audio: get a good audio system
and use it.
(Sound Retrieval System) is offered on TV's from competing brands. It,
and a couple of other audio gadgets, claims to give you a surround sound
effect from only the two speakers on the TV. It works okay, but it's hardly
a substitute for Dolby Surround.
Some TV's build
in Dolby Surround, and/or other audio surround effects (like stadium,
theatre, etc.) and some even come with the rear, surround speakers. This
is great for one-stop shopping (or if you're living in a place where you
can't crank the volume) but again, for a serious home theatre, get a separate
audio system and hook 'em all together.
We've also seen
widescreen TV's introduced, from a few manufacturers. These are pretty
neat, but TV stations don't broadcast widescreen programming for the most
part, so you're limited to viewing "letterboxed" laserdiscs
and DVD's (the best way to watch video movies anyway) or using "Picture
Outside Picture" (POP) to give you more than one source to watch
at a time.
Some of these
sets also let you manipulate the standard image, "converting"
the squarish TV picture into a widescreen one, but the tradeoff here is
that you skim the top and bottom from the picture in the same way a "pan
and scan" video taken from a widescreen movie chops the sides from
the picture - or stretch the image from top to bottom and make everything
on it look tall and skinny..
The Next Generation
The hype over
the past decade has been around High Definition TV (HDTV), which is a
whole new ball game as far as TV is concerned. HDTV,
featured elsewhere in TechnoFILE, substantially ups the picture ante
as well as giving you 16:9 aspect ratio widescreen pictures and "CD-quality"
HDTV to work, the broadcasters and the other people who make video programming
have to convert, which is expensive and puts a big dent in their short
term profits. And they have to do it when only a handful of people have
the HDTV systems at home, so they're being forced to deal with two formats
(HDTV and the old system) for the next several years.
HDTV is currently
expensive for consumers, too, just like anything else in the world of
consumer electronic starts out priced in the stratosphere and slowly becomes
affordable to mere mortals. Still, the sets are now out there, and the
HDTV revolution is under way.
In the meantime,
many enhancements of the current systems (NTSC, PAL, or SECAM, depending
where in the world you live) are being introduced. These include things
like "line doublers" that digitally fudge extra scan lines between
the current ones. They can do a marvelous job (depending on how much money
you spend on the line doubler, of course), though some can be plagued
with "digital artifacts" that give an unrealistic and/or soft
quality to the picture.
than HDTV in the short term is the exploding channel capacity and new
competition to your friendly cable operator. Satellite TV is coming into
its own with the introduction of systems like DSS, those 18/24 inch digital
dish systems that are being hyped like crazy.
DSS and its
competitors give you a wider variety of channels, including audio-only
channels, as well as a broad range of pay per view services. They also
offer a better picture than your typical cable system (which until now
hasn't had to compete for your dollar - and so didn't) as well as "CD-quality"
sound. They also claim DVD-quality picture, but we might argue that point
(though they're darn good!).
So the future
of video is bright and in the end will benefit the consumer through better
products at lower prices. And the blossoming "500 channel" universe
will offer a dizzying range of programs to suit every taste.
Of course, Murphy's
Law being what it is, you'll surf through all 500 channels only to discover
there's still nothing worth watching
What do you
look for in a new TV? We talk about that in our "TV
Buying Advice" column.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think