Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

HD is the new SD

What happened to the allure of the HDTV?  I was thinking about this the other day, as I tried to shoehorn some more crap in my storage space and realized that the little 15″ analog CRT TV I have in there is probably never going to see service again and is just wasting a couple of cubic feet of precious space.   (Did I throw it out?  Of course not.  The second I do, our main TV will blow up and I’ll be forced to play Call of Duty by sound only.  Besides, I’d probably get sent to Guantanamo Bay as a terror suspect for chucking a TV into a dumpster here in the people’s republic.)  I mean, it took something like twenty years from the time the Japanese had (analog) HD in every home from the time they finally shut off the old systems here in the US.  And for all of that time, HD was in this virtual limbo.  It was like space travel – sure, you’ve got some Russians hanging out in a space station, drinking Tang and dissecting mouse livers in zero-G, but the time from the first space shuttle launch to the expected time when anyone can go to a United Airlines terminal, drop a credit card, and take a flight to the moon is somewhere between forever and never.

(Side note: if Virgin or United or whoever starts offering those low earth orbit flights, do you think they would give you mileage?  Because if so, you’re going to rack up something like 400,000-some miles per day.  Fly for a week, and you can turn that shit in for roughly 2500 years’ worth of Sports Illustrated subscriptions.)

I remember the first time I ever saw an HDTV set.  It was at a Magnolia hi-fi shop in Lynnwood, in like 97 or 98 – they had this big-screen, I think a rear projector, since that was about all they had back then.  And one of the local stations – I think KOMO – was broadcasting 24 hours in HD, but they only had like two hours a week of actual programming, so they ran this loop of some crap they filmed, like a news helicopter flying over the mountains, shooting the evergreen trees scrolling by, some clouds or mist in the distance, snow-covered peaks, that sort of thing.  And I was absolutely floored by the quality of the broadcast, the way it looked like much more than just doubling the number of lines or whatever.  The color depth, the richness, was simply amazing.  And then I talked to the sales guy, and of course the set cost as much as my car, and you had to buy a laserdisc player, and none of the cable systems did anything, so you had to get some rabbit ears, and they hoped that in a few years, about ten percent of shows might be in HD, and the whole thing seemed as probable as getting a working jet pack with a completely legal death ray add-on system.

I never thought about making the jump to HDTV for a while – I never had enough room or cash to buy a rear-projector system.  When I moved to Astoria in 1999, I bought the most TV $500 would buy, which was a 27″ Panasonic CRT set that lasted me ten years.  I thought about HDTV only because in New York, all of the networks started broadcasting in the early 2000s, and I couldn’t get shit with my rabbit ears hooked up to my analog set.  The rumor was a good HDTV tuner with an analog output would potentially give me clear pictures, or at least I’d trade the snow in the picture for pixelation compression errors.  But I didn’t want to drop hundreds on a box just to eat up more of my writing time on crappy network shows, so I forgot about it.  (There was also an issue that the highest point in New York City, which was the central point for all HDTV service since 1998, suddenly vanished in September of 2001.)

I did buy a HDTV in 2009, when we moved into this new place, for a few reasons.  First, I could junk that old 27″, and not have to move it or buy a bulky piece of furniture for it to sit on.  The thin-screen LCD revolution happened after the turn of the century, and after a few years of enjoying the fruits of a 20″ LCD monitor on my desktop, I got a nice Samsung TV for the house.  And then less than a year later, Samsung gave all of their employees a bigger LCD TV as a year-end gift (probably to clear out stock for their new LED TVs, which look great but are awesomely expensive right now).

I remember all of the madness about the big switch, when the evil socialist Obama government would pull the plug on the analog TV standard and leave us all without our daily doses of Judge Judy and Matlock reruns.  The whole thing seemed like a joke to me, since I first heard about the changeover something like twenty years before, and if you’ve got cable, it doesn’t even matter anyway.  But people freaked the fuck out, and the government changed the transition date and spent billions (literally!) of money on education, and coupons for converter boxes.  It’s an amazing testament to this country’s priorities that people die in the streets without healthcare, but threaten to shut off people’s TV, and we’ll organize and blow federal money like there’s an asteroid headed straight to the earth and we need to get Bruce Willis on that thing with a nuke and a drilling platform, pronto.

So I’ve had the HDTV hookup for a year and a half now, and I guess sometimes I notice the difference.  But it’s one of those news memes that seemed like the end of the universe in early 2009, but in ten years, nobody’s even going to remember a time when we didn’t have HDTV.  And the real question is, when will the next big switch happen?  NTSC in the US went from 1941 to 2009 with color TV starting in 1951 (and then stopping, and restarting in 1953).  I’m guessing the next big move to make all TVs obsolete won’t take 56 years.  The next big format war is going to be over 3D TV, and of course, every major manufacturer has their own format, and has their own hallucination that their format will prevail and that by next year, all of us will be replacing our TVs with their new crap.  If they had their way, we’d replace our TVs every year, and also buy a new cell phone every year, and a new computer.  I expect Samsung’s home appliance division to get in the game too, and come out with some new planned obsolescence strategy for their clothes washers and refrigerators too.

Now I just need Comcast to get with the digital revolution and give me a new DVR that has an actual HDMI out, so I don’t need to keep hitting the screen format button and try to figure out if a person’s face is really bloated or if I’m supposed to be watching something in 4:3 instead of 16:9.