The Last 35 Inches, or 27, or 60 -- Flat-Out!


Americans are buying TV sets again. Especially big TV sets.

That's good news not only for consumer-electronicsmanufacturers and retailers, but also for the folks who deliver video into living roomsand bedrooms. All of that new equipment gives viewers more reasons to stay home and watch:Maybe a bigger, brighter screen will make the TV shows better.

But in the zero-sum-gain of new media, the recent uptick incolor-TV-set sales could be bad news for the fast introduction of digital orhigh-definition TVs during the next few years. The current sales pace works out to anannualized rate of about 24 million TV sets: a new screen in nearly one out of every fourAmerican homes this year. How many of those households will buy another new set in thenext few years, as digital TV arrives?

According to the Consumer Electronics ManufacturersAssociation, a record 2.9 million color TV sets were sold during January and February --up 10.6 percent compared to the first two months of 1997. Projection TV sales climbed 14percent. (Unfortunately for retailers' margins, the average video-equipment pricefell 4 percent.)

The acceleration of TV-set purchases reflects severalfactors. Certainly, the booming economy is encouraging Americans to shop for big-ticketitems and to upgrade their homes; there have been similar trends in household-goodscategories and remodeling services.

Equally significant: The scare talk about HDTV has cooleddown, even as the first deadline for broadcast-digital TV looms closer. Just 12 monthsago, we were in the midst of a high-profile debate about the introduction of digital TV,laden with threats that today's TV sets would become obsolete. Not surprisingly,TV-set sales fell, as customers decided to await the next-generation sets.

The back-benching of that discussion apparently conveys theimpression that a TV set bought today will have a useful life well into the next decade orbeyond -- certainly fitting into Americans' viewpoint that a TV set should last eightto 12 years (before it's moved to a country home, kid's room or basement).

Meanwhile, other data suggest that televiewers expect tospend more time enjoying their TV sets. CEMA notes a 14 percent increase last year in thenumber of "home-theater" households -- now nearly 15 million American homes.This year, another 1.8 million homes are likely to install such systems -- usually verybig-screen or projection TV sets accompanied by special audio receivers, top-of-the-lineVCRs and, often, satellite and DVD hardware.

And as is always the case, viewers are going to be offeredmore options as the high-tech onslaught persists. For example, NEC Corp. and ThomsonMultimedia (the RCA folks) unveiled plans this month to co-develop plasma displays thatwill be used in TV sets and monitors.

Despite the medical-sounding term, this plasma technologyoffers the flat-screen, high-resolution displays that we've been hearing about foryears. Both NEC and Thomson, on their own, have developed and demonstrated prototypes. RCAplans to sell a 42-inch plasma TV by midyear, configured for the 16-to-9 HDTV format. NECis building a factory in Japan to make a few hundred-thousand plasma screens in itsinitial annual run; NEC's current plasma lineup includes a 33-inch VGA monitor and a50-inch wide-screen XGA HDTV.

Don't let today's $6,000 to $10,000 price tag forthese flat screens scare you off. Other electronics-makers plunging into plasma productsforesee prices competitive with high-end TV equipment -- that is, $1,000 to $3,000 --during the coming years. Sony, Zenith, Philips, Matsushita and all of the others are alsodreaming big visions for future TV sets. Sony alone just introduced 41 new models for1998, many of them featuring "flat-faced" picture tubes, although not as flat asthe plasma displays that it is working on.

These and other TV-set initiatives take on addedsignificance in light of CableLabs' recent efforts to work with the high-speed"fire wire" standard to link OpenCable digital set-tops and consumer-electronicsdevices. Fire wire and other home distribution techniques are closely tied to thecomputer-TV concept being promoted by Microsoft, Compaq and their allies.

That's another reminder that the plasma displays andhigher-resolution screens can also become personal computer monitors. Indeed, theproliferation of Internet TV makes this capability inevitable, and possibly evendesirable. Just as 35-inch and 60-inch TV sets and projection TV sets are gainingpopularity, so, too, are bigger-screen (17-inch and 20-inch) PC monitors becomingcommonplace.

It's another reason for cable operators andprogrammers to understand what Americans really mean when they say "TV." Thatterm finally boils down to that Cyclops screen in the living room, bedroom, kitchen and/orden. And not only is that screen becoming more omnipresent (often three, four, or more perhousehold); but it is also becoming bigger, higher-quality -- and more powerful.

Is there anything on worth watching?

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen awaits devices to tune in holographic