The Middlebrow

Big-Screen Televisions

A moral dilemma.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.
        Click image to expand.

Before we enter the moral swamp of big-screen televisions, a quick story. A revelation, really. Scene: Sunday night this January. Location: Romanian-run bar in Manhattan. Occasion: NFL playoffs. Alcohol: Yes.

I’m prattling on about the Steelers (a team I know nothing about) when I glance at the bar’s big-screen TV and notice something marvelous: linemen’s breath. CBS was locked on one of those “eye-of-God” shots, the camera hovering a few hundred feet above the players. But with the clarity of the plasma TV, you could see the individual breaths of defensive linemen waft out of their face masks into the cold air. Perhaps it was the Amstel, but I was touched. My exuberance for big-screen TV shot into the stratosphere. It reached a similar high last week, when the New York Times reported that manufacturers like Panasonic may be on the brink of a murderous price war, which will drive big-screens into range for those of us not pulling down NFL salaries. Tons of late adopters are surely poised, like me, to invest in their first televisual behemoth, forgetting the days when the idea of big-screen TV seemed, you know, sort of uncouth. So remind me again: Why did we decide it was OK to admit hulking, 65-inch black boxes into our living rooms?

Falling prices, rising quality—yes. But there’s more to it. Like the Gap T-shirt or Maxim, a big-screen TV carries its own set of social implications. The first big-screens with a quality picture were turned out by Mitsubishi in the late 1970s and peddled by retailers like Southern California’sPaul Goldenberg, the self-proclaimed “King of Big Screen.” In the early days, Goldenberg and his cohorts catered mostly to niche markets: the super-rich (for whom the big-screen was a fob) and lonely cinephiles and sports fanatics (for whom the big-screen was a beloved friend). On the other side of the spectrum, rent-to-own shops “leased” big-screen TVs to the creditless for 185 percent of their value. It wasn’t until two decades later, during the free-wheeling, Clintonian 1990s, that the big-screen began to really catch on with the middle class—in part because of early price wars, and in part because of a burst of competitive spending that also fueled the heyday of the SUV and McMansion. In 1994, Consumer Electronics reported that big-screen TVs were outselling their midsize counterparts for the first time in history.

The first dilemma of the big-screen is where to put the thing. Just how comfortable you are introducing a big-screen into your home might depend (to cop a line from the former president) on what your definition of “living room” is. The big-screen is a black hole of design. Admitting one into your living room will suck the life force from your leather sectional, fireplace, and Pre-Raphaelite art pieces. Pair the big-screen with a stereo and the cumulative effect is to morph your living room into an “entertainment room,” in which the technology dictates the ambience. Bright colors and rich leathers give way to razor-sharp black edges. In 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported that new-home builders had begun to reconfigure rooms around the big-screen—which the paper referred to, brightly, as the “new hearth.”

Note the difference between this and the axiom about TV taking over the house. Here the problem isn’t whether to pledge your devotion to Uncle Television; it’s whether he should be allowed to remodel. Where small TVs can be concealed in an armoire, in most cases a big-screen must remain alfresco. The solution for some families has been to embrace the big-screen as an art object. This, too, conforms to a new ideal of the American household. As the population drifts toward the exurbs, small flourishes make otherwise identical houses stand out. “When you live in the land of McMansions, you want to adorn your house to create some sense of difference,” says Kevin Delaney, a sociologist at Temple University. “And having the latest TV on the wall is one of the ways to do it.” Honey, who are the Moores again? Those nice people down the block, with the two young girls and the 65-inch Mitsubishi Medallion.

Since TV is a populist medium, it follows that rich and poor viewers alike would dream about upgrading to 72-inch glory. For this reason, the big-screen has become a useful tool in amateur class theorizing. That is, the big-screen can symbolize virtually anything you want about any social class. In the case of the middle class, for example, the big-screen is often derided as a risible symbol of overconsumption—another totem to keep up with the Joneses. (“It frightens me to be sensitive to the idea that my neighbor just got a big-screen TV that’s three inches bigger than mine,” a banker told Fortune in 1987. “But that’s something I look at.”)A brighter view holds that the big-screen TV is a democratizing cultural force. It has turned us all into movie connoisseurs—allowing us to finally appreciate widescreen DVDs and surround sound in our “home theaters.” RobertThompson, a historian at Syracuse University, contends that the near-cinematic artistry of HBO’s The Sopranos and Carnivále is due, in part, to improving technology. “The producers want to make sure these things have equity value built up,” Thompson says. “So when we’re watching The Sopranos in reruns ten years from now, on a big-screen, it will still look good.”

The working poor also have a tenuous relationship with the big-screen. Conservative critics might see the presence of a big-screen in a dilapidated tract house as a product of misguided spending; for liberals, it could merely represent inchoate class longings. In a heartbreaking example that would satisfy both camps, the Los Angeles Times profiled a family of four—total income: $19,000—who had driven themselves to the brink of insolvency by buying a big-screen TV. In 1998, a Business Week writer described his amazement upon entering the house of a down-at-heels Massachusetts woman: “I beheld the trappings of upper-middle-class comfort. The big-screen TV and VCR. The crush of name-brand toys. And outside, the fairly new Lincoln Town Car—for which she was several months behind on payments.”

This shouldn’t tamp down our big-screen lust. If we’re all cashing in our hipster cred for bourgeois trappings, then at least we’re doing it together. Call me uncultivated and aesthetically dense; call me a vile social climber; call my living room dreary—but I want to see linemen’s breath, and I want it now.