The picture of the family television set is finally beginning to change.
For more than 70 years, the big box, crammed with analog technology, has looked pretty much the same. The machine's clunky glass tube is so familiar to Americans that it has become synonymous with TV itself.
But advances in technology the past few years have finally caught up with the grand dame of home entertainment. In many new models, the tube is gone altogether. And that familiar color picture looks a lot sharper - like the view outside a living-room window on a clear blue day.
First, a much larger percentage of TVs - some of them still with tubes - are built to show high-definition programming.
When these programs are fed to viewers via a high-definition signal, HDTV-ready televisions can display them with 10 times the resolution of an analog set.
Besides providing a clearer, crisper picture, other new TVs are lighter and slimmer. By transmitting TV signals through thin layers of plasma or liquid crystal, rather than a tube, manufacturers have trimmed the depth of TVs to as little as three inches. Buyers can hang a flat-panel TV from a wall instead of eating up living-room space.
High-definition and flat-panel digital TVs have been around for a few years. But better technology, and aggressive efforts on the part of retailers to sell them, have recently drawn consumer attention.
More people than retailers had expected are buying new models, some of which integrate both advances. And while prices remain too high for many buyers, the growing popularity of the new TVs sends a clear message: After 2003, television will never look the same.
"It's technology that people have been waiting for ever since the Jetson's TV show," says Maureen Jenson, editor of Home Theater Magazine. "The days of bulky TV sets are going to go away."
About 2.4 million high-definition-ready TVs were sold last year - more than an 80 percent increase over the previous year. (Note: An "HDTV-ready" set still requires the addition of a special tuner, often costing about $350, to receive HDTV broadcasts. An "integrated" set has such a tuner built in.)
Flat-panel purchases - some HDTV, some not - rose about 400 percent, to about 1.4 million units, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
The reason for the stronger sales, say experts, is not that consumers are tired of their old sets, but that they are intrigued by the new technology.
People recognize "that they can watch, at home, TV that has the same quality [as] what they watch in the theater," says Alan McCollough, president of Circuit City, the national electronics chain.
HDTVs provide a cinema-quality picture. The sets show movies and TV programs with a resolution of as many as 1,080 lines per second, compared with 480 for standard sets.
Flat-panel TVs that hang high on a wall are being used to replicate the feel of a theater. Experts say the models are particularly popular among women, who appear most likely to appreciate the sets' interior-design benefits.
Both types of TVs usually come pretty large - between 30 and 60 inches, measured diagonally. And they are often capable of displaying the widescreen versions of movies, without cutting off the sides or requiring a "letter box" format, which shrinks the picture.
So given all this great technology, what is the perfect set to buy? The answer hinges on how much you are willing to spend.
The ultimate TV might combine a high-definition picture with a flat-panel, wide-screen frame. Several manufacturers offer these models. Sony's 32-inch set, for example, sells for $5,000. Pioneer's 43-inch model costs $8,000.
But the two technologies, high-definition and flat-panel, can also be bought separately. In fact, high-definition technology inside a regular tube or projection TV is less expensive than in a flat-panel set.
Samsung and Phillips sell 27-inch, HDTV-ready tube models for $800 and $900, respectively. RCA's 52-inch HDTV-ready projection monitor sells for $1,900.
Flat-panel TVs, conversely, are a bit better priced without high-definition technology. Gateway, better known for manufacturing computers, sells a 42-inch plasma screen for $3,000. Panasonic offers a 42-inch model for less than $5,000. TVs with a liquid crystal display (LCD) come in smaller sizes and cost as little as $1,000 for a 15-inch set.
Prices on most of these models are half of what they were a few years ago, and industry analysts expect them to drop at a similar rate over the next 18 months. "It's coming within the realm of affordability for mainstream consumers," says David Dritsas, editor of Dealerscope Magazine.
Experts credit much of the price drop to decisions by mass-marketers to stock and heavily promote the new TVs, even before consumers showed interest in buying them.
Sears, for example, decided last year to stock plasma and LCD TVs after more than 60 percent of its customers reported that family-movie viewing is their top entertainment activity. Sears now devotes 10 percent of its TV shelf space to plasma and LCD models because it assumes its customers will eventually flock to these new technologies, says Mr. Dritsas.
"No one goes into it thinking they can sell thousands a day," says Dritsas. "You promote the new technology that you're fairly sure is going to make you money in the future."
Even as retailers believe these new TVs will drive most of their future sales, and are aggressively pushing them in stores, consumers have reasons to wait. Some experts believe plasma and LCD offer a poorer picture compared with even standard analog sets, and some models are susceptible to an image "burning" into the screen if the picture does not change for several hours.
They also are relatively untested as a day-to-day consumer product.
"The biggest issue right now is we're not sure how long they'll last, because no one has owned them for that long," says Ms. Jenson.
The broad availability of high- definition technology is also in question. By 2006, networks will be required to offer all programs in an HDTV format, and several have already begun to switch to high-definition for prime-time programs.
But fewer than 10 percent of the 733 local television stations that broadcast high-definition programming are being carried on cable systems capable of delivering the format, according to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
Moreover, because two-thirds of all American households receive their local channels via cable, most viewers cannot access the high-definition versions of programs right now.
"You would think that the federal government would apply some pressure to cable systems to carry local broadcasts of high- definition," says NAB spokesman Dennis Warton. "Otherwise, the implication is that the viewer should unhook his cable wire, buy a 30-foot antenna, get up on his roof, and put it up just to get [shows such as] CSI or ER in HDTV."
But that issue could be resolved in a year or so, say experts, as cable companies and TV manufacturers come closer to agreeing on a standard by which the function of a cable box - used to pull in channels - can be performed by a high-definition tuner.
Right now, most consumers buy the tuner separately.
Carrier issues aside, other observers are more concerned by the effect a revolution in TV technology might have on the dynamics of the American household.
When TV first reached the mass market in the 1940s, say experts, its placement in the front room of the house changed the way Americans thought about home life.
"The front room used to be for guests," says Notre Dame University communications professor Christine Becker. "When the TV came along, it complicated the separation between the public and private."
Now, some experts hypothesize that widespread adoption of high-end TVs could prompt consumers to make entertainment that was once an entirely public experience, like moviegoing, a home-based activity.
"If you can get as good an image at home with home theater, cinema attendance may fall victim," says William Uricchio, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
By Albert H. Lee