The era of the black monolith will soon be over. The New York Times reports that, with sales of flat-screen televisions taking over the share of all TVs sold much faster than expected, the day is coming when you cannot buy a good old-fashioned, cheap, back-breaking tube television for hernias or money. Some manufacturers have cut their tube-TV offerings to a single set, including Panasonic; many say they will stop making cathode-ray sets within a year or so.
You may be worrying that this is just an excuse for me to write yet another tedious paean to my new plasma set. It’s not. (Entourage, by the way, looks amazing in HD. But it’s not. Really.) It is, instead, just another milestone in the steady metastatization of the entertainment line within the American household budget.
There was a day when you bought a TV set, which was more or less like your neighbor’s. You outfitted it with an antenna, or a coathanger. You bought the occasional LP to play on your hi-fi, which you would keep until the end of time. You went to a movie once in a while. If you were particularly flush, Junior Mints would be involved.
Today, however, we live amid waves of technological change–and every such wave, like real waves grinding a mighty island gradually into a slip of nothingness, erodes your wallet a little bit more, and permanently. You have cable now, or satellite, and if you want to be really cool you have premium channels and a DVR. You went from LPs to CDs to an iPod, every changing giving you not just new equipment to buy and upgrade–that new computer every two years is now part of your entertainment budget–but a chance to repurchase your record collection. Likewise VCR to DVD to, soon, HD-DVD. Likewise radio to satellite radio (another monthly line item!).
Likewise ringtones. We are now a nation of people who pay their freaking phones to ring.
TV used to be the great democratizer, sort of: there was only so much any mortal, however wealthy, could hope to spend on one. But now you’re looking at prices starting at around $1000 for an entry-level flatscreen for a modest room and running up to if-you-have-to-ask range. $200 for something to plunk down in your first apartment? Bygone days. Oh, sure, as the article notes, the price of some flatscreens now roughly equals a tube television of the same size. (Presumably, if that tube TV is an HDTV, however.) But an executive with the parent company of RCA notes that a 27-inch LCD is about $800, compared with $240 or $350 for a tube. The price of being a respectable American philistine has just tripled.
Of course, this doesn’t mean TV is going to become an elite medium. Far from it. More than likely, we will thoughtlessly suck up the additional expense just as we have every other increment in the entertainment budget: it’s just a few more hours of overtime a week, a little more debt on the credit cards, another chunk out of the house through a home-equity line of credit. And that’ll be the case all the way down the line: the staggering ratio of TV screen size to household income is a hallmark of many American poor families. But you have to wonder if TV as a medium will get more respect out of the transition–not because it looks better in widescreen but because, if we’re spending so much money on it, it must be important, right?
And therefore, so are TV critics, right? I wonder if I can get a raise out of this.