Greetings From Planet Television

You might not have noticed that we live on the third planet from the star in our solar system. I mention this because of the ultra-alien things that have been going on lately in TV-set pricing.

I mean, surely you've had a moment when you either said or wanted to say, "What planet are you from?" It's when someone seems to disregard all evidence of things we see daily - days & nights, gravity, the necessity for humans to breathe, the necessity for NTSC composite video to have a pedestal-little stuff like that there.

A pal of mine once told me of a flight he took. Right after the plane took off, it started bouncing around so hard that things were flying off the flight-attendant carts. Then the pilot got on the PA and announced that things were so lovely and smooth that he'd turn off the seat-belt sign.

An hour later, things calmed down to silky smoothness, and the flight attendants started their service. Then pilot said he was sorry, but because it was too rough, he needed the flight attendants to stay in their seats for the rest of the (totally bump-free) trip.

My pal asked, "What flight was the pilot on?" Yeah, I know; "flight" is more specific than "planet," but I'm just getting started.

I read newspapers every now and then. When I see an ad for a $65 13-inch TV at Sears or a $50 VHS machine at Fry's, I think pleasant thoughts. What a great country we live in, eh? The Chinese make stuff so cheap that it costs less than the postage on my holiday gifties. American ingenuity is totally awesome!


Then I start having those planetary thoughts. No, they ain't about sweatshops or human rights or the global economy. They're about how the heck even the Chinese are going to be able to squeeze broadcast-flag-robust digital reception into those jobbies and still have them cost $65 or $50.

I keep reading that the licensing fees for ATSC DTV come to about $16 per receiver. So, to my single-neuron brain (See, Nellie, I'm trying to get you fixed up!), that would have to mean that Sears could really be selling that TV now for $49, and Fry's could really be selling that VHS machine now for $34. That's if the actual DTV and broadcast-flag circuitry costs nothing at all, which is probably going to be pretty close to right by July 2007, when the digital-reception rule kicks in for those NTSC-receiving products.

I suppose it's possible. Wal-Mart is selling DVD players for $30. But, gee, I wonder how much the price of a $15 TV will be affected by $16 in royalties.

Dang! I forgot. Those $15 TVs tend to have five-inch black-and-white screens, and the FCC (aka Our Beloved Commish), in its infinite wisdom, decided that TV sets with 4:3 diagonals below 13 inches don't have to add digital reception. But, if they do, they've got to make it broadcast-flag robust-able to withstand a screwdriver-wielding pirate with clip leads and an EEPROM burner - even if there ain't any outputs from the TV. If you think I'm kidding, go check out Our Beloved Commish's Web site.

"But, Mario, is it really such a big deal if TVs aren't available for $15 anymore?"

I don't know. Is it such a big deal if you can't buy a cup of coffee for under $2? Is it such a big deal if a shirt has to cost at least $50? You tell me. But I'll tell you it ain't just $15 five-inch TVs.

Let me see. Besides the $15 5-inch black-and-white TVs and the $65 13-inch color jobbies and the $50 VHS machines, I've seen an ad or three for $100 20-inch TVs and even $100 TV/VHS combos. Do those need two sets of digital receivers under the rules-one for the TV part and one for the VHS-machine part? Hmmm. How about dual-tuner TVs with picture-in-picture?

Anyhow, that's stuff that falls under the digital-reception mandate in July 2007, which is so far away that the U.S. Constitution could be amended between now and then to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for President. In between, we've got a few other digital-reception dates, like, for instance, this coming July 1.

That's when, according to Our Beloved Commish, 50 percent of TV sets 36-inch and over need digital reception if they've got analog tuners (the robust broadcast-flag stuff doesn't kick in until 2005). So, how much do those TVs cost now?


We interrupt this rant for the following historical flashback:

Wooooo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo (that's historical flashback music, as if you couldn't tell).

It's early 1954. A new Ford automobile costs about $1,695, and a new Westinghouse color TV costs $1,295.

Wooooo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo (that's return to the present music, as you were about to point out to me). No, wait. Make that Wooooo-ooooo-ooooo instead. Let's come back just to maybe 1998, when the first HDTVs started to appear.

They cost a pretty penny - and pretty pennies, in those days, went for thousands of dollars. I don't know. Maybe one of them cost about 3/4 as much as a new cheap car, but I don't think so. Anyhow, back in 1954, by August (maybe five months after the $1,295 TV), the price of an RCA color TV had already dropped to $495.

Wooooo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo. We're back in 2004, methinks. That's six years after 1998-seven years after Our Beloved Commish issued its digital-TV rules. And this year, the first digital-reception rule kicks in for 36-inch TVs and up.

The word from those who favor those rules is that the cost of adding digital-TV reception to those big TVs will be insignificant. My, my. Those are words to ponder, perchance to research. So I did. Some-of-a-Beach! They're right!

"But, Mario, doesn't digital-TV reception still cost a lot?"

I don't know. Maybe. I think you can usually find a set-top box for $500 or so, and inside a TV you don't need the case or power supply.

"But, Mario, isn't $500 significant?"

Maybe it is, here on Planet Earth. But on Planet Television things are very different.

I mentioned looking at ads a time or three. The cheapest 36-inch TVs are usually around $600, which means most TVs 36-inches and up cost a bunch more than that.

Yeah, $500 is a pretty big add-on to a $600 TV. Even $200 is a pretty big add on even to a $1,000 TV. But who said anything about $1,000?

The most expensive TV 50 years ago was the Westinghouse NTSC set at $1,295, which was a lot of money back then. The most expensive TV today is-are you ready? The Runco MBX-1. Its manufacturer-suggested retail price is-better sit down and grasp the chair arms firmly-$249,995.

You read it correctly. The only dot in that last sentence was the period at the end of it. This is a TV that ain't got even an NTSC tuner, and it costs a quarter of a million bucks.

What's $500? So it'll be $250,495. Is that going to make you not buy it? Geez! $500 is about two-tenths of a percent of the set cost. Heck, yeah, I'd say that's pretty insignificant. It'd be an insulting tip for the delivery guys.

"But, Mario, surely not every set 36-inch and up costs a quarter-million dollars!"

Of course, not! And don't call me Shirley.

I found the Runco "TV set" in the handy-dandy guide to HDTV products available on the Consumer Electronics Association's Web site. It also has the Faroudja FP-61HD10 for a mere $35,995. There's the Accurate 9 from Accurate Imaging Technologies for $50,000 (of which $500 is but one percent). There's the Crystal View 1 for $59,999. There's the Digital Projection Highlite Platinum HC for $69,995. There's the Elite Video EV-3000 for $79,995.

There are about 120 TV sets on the CEA list that cost more than $10,000 each. And $500 is just a 5 percent add-on to a $10,000 TV. Yeah, I'd be willing to say that's relatively insignificant.

Someone is selling a quarter-million-dollar TV set to consumers. What planet have I been on?