Seeing High Definition Television for the first time pulled the pin on my AV geek consumer lust. I was an early adopter, but one of limited means, so for every new technology on the scene, I would set a price I thought I could afford, then wait for the market to meet it. In autumn of 1998, the HDTV market had a long way to go.
When San Diego’s Dow Stereo/Video displayed Panasonic’s first HD monitor, New York Times tech writer Joel Brinkley reported, “15,000 people trooped through to see the set over the first weekend.” At $5,500 a pop, Dow sold out its stock of 30 units, and took orders for 16 in advance.
Brinkley was agog at the figures being thrown around. “(T)alk about sticker shock.” he marveled, “a 55-inch rear projection (Samsung) will go on sale in November with a $7,999 price tag.” Not only that, “But to receive high-definition … digital broadcasting … owners … will also have to buy a digital tuner box. Panasonic’s goes on sale in October for $1,700.”
Brinkley noted that the average TV of the day sold for less than $500. “And how long before the industry is able to sell a high-definition television set for $499.95?” he pondered. “Within the industry, that question generally is greeted with heavy sighs and pessimistic shakes of the head. No one is willing to even guess.”
For me, the wait ended somewhere in 2002, with the arrival the RCA F38310 HDTV. As Ron Williams rhapsodized in Sound and Vision, “(A)t 38 inches diagonally, the F38310 is… the biggest direct-view CRT display on the market. … (I)t has built-in HDTV and NTSC tuners. As if that weren’t enough, it also has a built-in DirecTV satellite receiver. In one gray, plastic cabinet, you get a TV that reproduces an excellent 1080i picture and can receive just about any HD or SD broadcast. … This is good. No, it’s great.”
I don’t think I slept a wink the night before Circuit City delivered my gray plastic marvel. The future of entertainment was live in my living room.
A couple of weeks later, my pal Tim used his carpentry gifts to design and build a shelf extension to hold the new unit. We had set it on the floor to make room for the construction, and when we moved it to the shelf, we just about blacked out. Thus we became intimately acquainted with the factor that elicited Ron Williams’ only quibble: “The largest CRT on the market” weighed in at 220 pounds.
“That is the heaviest thing I have ever successfully lifted,” panted Tim.
The Hall Hacienda was wired for HDTV, “But,” as the Times’ David Everitt queried, “when the gizmo is hooked up and ready to display its wide-screen, high-quality pictures, what will there be to watch?”
The short answer was, “Not a lot.”
HBO and Showtime HD were broadcast via DirecTV, which also offered HDNET, a variety channel and a few demo channels. By late September of 2002, Huntsville’s WHNT was broadcasting in HD, but there were so few receivers in town they had to set up invitation-only viewing parties at local restaurants to show off their wares. Football games were a good choice for the promotion, but probably the best HD showcase was CBS’s “CSI.” The show had lots of deep black and dark colors, and lots of little details in the background that appealed to the TV-geek nature of the early HDTV crowd.
In the fullness of time, my beloved RCA behemoth was struck by lightning and replaced by a Sony rear-projection unit. Then came a Mitsubishi, then a Samsung 4K. Stereo became surround sound, which became Dolby 5.1, Dolby 7.1 and now Atmos, though I haven’t yet upgraded to that one. DVDs became Blu-Ray and then came the Roku. There were swaps from DirecTV to cable and back and back again, and therefore, a constant stream of remote controls and universal remotes.
For my fabulous bride and me, Tuesday night in front of the silver screen had been a tradition since our first date when, we agreed, “Big Top Pee Wee” failed to live up to the standard set by “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.”
As time passed, our trips to the movie theater became less and less frequent, despite the rise of the fantastic Rave and Monaco multi-palaces, sporting 3-D and Imax capabilities.
Alas, technology changes, but human beings don’t. At least not for the better. We got caught in a spray of Dr Pepper when a pair of 10-year-olds threw a quart-sized souvenir cup at the screen. Our tires were slashed outside the Hollywood 16. Asking people not to talk became an exercise in futility, if not an incitement to violence.
And the cell phones. Always the cell phones.
After a solid half-century of movie fandom and almost two decades of audiovisual technological promiscuity, a truth has emerged that I have not yet fully accepted: The one thing that’s always ruined the movies is people.