Television’s vast influence over American life continues to expand in ways better understood by salespeople than by scholars.
The boom in extra-large-screen televisions and “home theaters” shows no sign of letting up. People once content watching programs on 19-inch screens are opting for sets with 35-inch or 52-inch screens.
Although electronic components have shrunk to make giant televisions more compact, their screens are still so large that some appliance salespeople report having more difficulty delivering mega-televisions than they have with refrigerators.
Some veteran jumbo-screen owners say they resent visiting friends whose TV fare is presented in a puny 20-inch format.
The growth of screen size is even having an impact on home design. Interior decorators and home architects report that expanding television sizes have placed significant limitations on the design of living rooms or family rooms where people do their viewing.
And those concerned with television’s influence on small children say they fear negative aspects of viewing will be magnified by larger-than-life images, but the phenomenon is so new that apparently no studies have been conducted.
Whatever the side effects, mammoth televisions are becoming entrenched in the American home. And a combination of economic, technological and social forces are making gigantic televisions the models of choice as the decade progresses.
But how large must a television be to be considered a big-screen set? When commercial television was introduced in the 1950s, a 16-inch set was the biggest available. Twenty years later, the biggest screen size was 25 inches. Screens 27 inches across, diagonally - considered the smallest bigscreen models today - didn’t go on the market until the 1980s.
Today, sales of televisions with screens 27 inches or larger are rising while sales of those with screens smaller than 20 inches are falling. About 23 million sets will be sold this year in the United States. And about 45 percent of the time, when a consumer buys a new television to replace an old one, it’s a big-screen model, according to the Electronic Industries Association.
“People are watching more movies at home,” said Cynthia Upson, a spokeswoman for the association. “They are beginning to think in terms of having a home theater rather than just watching TV. This means a better sound system than traditional TVs had, and a bigger screen.
“Even if they don’t buy a home-theater system with surround-sound, more people are buying big-screen sets and hooking them up to their stereo systems to make their own theater environment.”
An industry poll of about 1,000 TV owners found that those with big-screen televisions rent more movies than people with smaller televisions and that they were happier with the programming they saw than was the average viewer.
“Since everyone is choosing from among basically the same programs, we can only conclude that superior equipment is adding to the enjoyment of the home-theater owners,” said Gary Shapiro, an Electronic Industries Association vice president.
Lower prices and better picture quality are two reasons for the big-TV boom, say the people who make and sell sets.
Several TV marketing trends make it likely that the appeal of big televisions will continue to grow.
One is the advent of direct-broadcast satellite television, which allows viewers to receive digital signals for top-quality image and sound on a dish the size of a pizza pan.
Another is high-definition television, which is in the final phase of standard-setting and could become commercially available within a few years. Though high-definition television will require a new type of set, these are expected to have large screens.
“You’re not going to go out and spend $700 on satellite TV and then hook it up to a 20-inch set,” said Clayton. “You want to experience superior picture quality and superb sound on a big screen with stereo.”
But while the swing to bigger televisions is clear, some implications are subtle.
Almost every house designed today must take TV size into account, said Dirk Denison, director of architecture graduate programs at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who has a private architecture practice as well.
“Before, when TV sets were smaller and more peripatetic, you could be more flexible with a room’s layout,” said Denison. “Now, there is usually just one orientation you can use with a room, and that’s to accommodate these sets, providing the right lighting, wall space and viewing angle.”
“No question … people buy sets that are bigger than they can accommodate,” said Chuck Cebuhar, home-electronics vice president at Sears Roebuck and Co. “Our delivery people have to be magicians in some cases. We turn them upside-down, take off doors and moldings, but we still have more trouble delivering TVs than refrigerators.”
Not everyone shares the enthusiasm of the industry and customers for bigger screens.
Some physicians fear that negative aspects of watching mindless, violent television shows on jumbo screens will amplify the harm already being done to children by such programming.