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The Video Revolution

How the Idiot Box grew up…

(editor's note: 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.

But Hollywood 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).

Clearly, if 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 bow down in gratitude to Sony Corporation.

Why? Because 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 time.

Most families 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 digital camera.

This freedom of choice is great. Just think about the World Wide Web around you and the cornucopia of tidbits it offers!

The Cassette 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.

Once moviegoers 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.

Good thing, 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.

Stereo/Hi-fi 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.

Inevitably, 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…

Well, electronics 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 front).

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.

Rear projection 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…

Digital special 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.

Hughes' SRS (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" sound.

Great! Unfortunately, for 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.

More important 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.

 

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Updated May 13, 2006