TV Technology and Prices: Then and Now

In a recent review, not yet published, I opened with a few remarks on the cost of today's premium Ultra HDTVs. Are they much more expensive than they were decades ago when adjusted for inflation? It's question worth revisiting in more detail.

In the early 1970s a good, 21-inch console color television might cost you $500. In today's money that would be around $3300. A good tabletop set might be $350, or about $2200 today. Neither set would offer remote control, nor anything close to high definition and certainly not high dynamic range. Its limited user controls might include Color and Tint, which were invariably set wrong by either the manufacturer or the user, and horizontal and vertical tint controls to keep the picture from rolling or tearing. They were pure analog and designed around vacuum tubes. No one thought in terms of bits, nor even lines of resolution; there was no option beyond standard definition and only TV engineers knew what 480i meant. The picture was 4 x 3, and on the weekly Million Dollar Movie broadcast (how quaint, given the cost of making movies today!), a widescreen film would always be panned and scanned (it often still is, but some things never change). A letterbox was something your mail was delivered in. American manufacturers such as RCA, Zenith, Emerson, Sylvania, Motorola, Admiral, and Westinghouse dominated the market. It would be a few years before Sony became a household name, and only decades later would sets from Korea and China be commonplace.

There was little or no cable; you were lucky to have four or five TV channels to choose from. There was no Internet or Wi-Fi streaming. At midnight, or soon after, the national anthem played and all broadcasting ceased until early the next morning. Somehow people survived.

What we have today (aside from an obesity epidemic from too many hours spent channel surfing and YouTubing combined with binge snacking!) are major upgrades to the TV experience. Denizens of the 1970s would have been totally confused and overwhelmed by today's endless variety of programming. If sets in today's sizes were to suddenly be made available in 1970, viewers would have moved as far back from them as their then smaller rooms allowed to avoid eye strain from the bright, humongous picture. (Too many viewers actually do that today; but that's a subject for a different blog.)

But with all of the negatives in the "Vast Wasteland" TV was said to be at the time, the early 70s did offer some now classic programming. This included Mash, Mission Impossible (yes, folks MI started as a TV show, though Tom Cruise was still in diapers at the time), and The Carol Burnette Show. Dallas and The Bob Newhart Show both inspired dream sequences, one of them infamous, the other, years later, generated the most iconic final episode scene in TV history. The original Star Trek and The Twilight Zone had both wrapped by 1970 and (as they used to say) left the "airwaves." But they were destined for endless repeats, inspiring similar future shows. Most of them, and the originals, are still popular in syndication today.

So are today's sets really better than what was available then? Yes, but at a cost, though not an immediate financial one. In the past, folks kept their TVs much longer, sometimes even for decades or at least until color became more affordable. For most buyers, slightly larger screens weren't dramatic enough reasons to make an immediate change. Remote controls and push-button tuners were nice to have, but hardly reasons to chuck Old Betsy to the curb (besides, Old Betsy weighed a ton!). And while screens got larger, we were still limited to 32-inches in direct view CRT until the bottom fell out for such designs, challenged first by rear projection sets the size of refrigerators and, eventually, by today's flat screens.

Another reason folks held onto their CRT sets was durability. They were solidly built, and if they broke it was almost certainly a bad tube. While there were TV repairmen who would come to your home (seen one of them lately, or a doctor who makes house calls?) a quick trip to the local drug store's tube tester often made for a cheap and easy fix as long as you didn't electrocute yourself poking around inside the set.

Today's big screen TVs are generally well made, but consumers now itch for a new set much sooner, generally in little more than 5 years and even less for those who must have the latest and the greatest. Technology is moving far faster than before—from SD to full acceptance of HD in less than 10 years, then to 3D (R.I.P.), even shorter to 4K, then to 4K with high dynamic range, and now (help me, Rhonda!) 8K. The now dominant short replacement turnaround is simply too valuable for set makers to stand still. But there's a plus for the consumer in this as well. The more sets sold, the more savings there are from economies of scale, which profits both the set maker and buyer. But the downside is that you have to replace your TV more often to keep the ball rolling!

Another reason for today's fast replacement turnaround is that there is simply more that can go wrong in complex flat screen sets, even though serious problems are comparatively rare. I recently had an analogous experience with my car, a 14-year old Mazda. The car's air conditioner went out (repairing the AC in your car is something you don't put off in August in Florida) and the service department had to pull out and then re-assemble much of the dash to fix it. The bill was roughly equivalent to the cost of a new, good (but not flagship-good), 65-inch TV. They had my car for a week, and I was loaned a new Mazda 3 for the duration (well, 2018 new at least). I was impressed by the new bells and whistles in the loaner, but couldn't help but think that this meant more that could go wrong—a boon for car service shops everywhere.

There are no tubes to be replaced in a modern TV, and no possibility of a DIY repair. And how many TV service shops are in your home town? I suspect that big box stores like Best Buy can do repairs, but may have to ship the set off to some sort of central repair facility, as they do with computers. And good luck if it's out of warrantee. Just getting a 65-inch TV to the shop can also be a hassle. (Hint: When you buy a new TV, don't throw away the shipping box!).

Interestingly, projectors are different. Their most likely failure is the projection lamp, an easy though not cheap DIY replacement. And if you do have to ship them off, or carry them to a repair shop, they're much easier to handle than a big TV. But while a good projector can make for a spectacular movie night on a big screen, it's rarely ideal for day-to-day viewing.

That 1970 console TV, lasting for 10 years, cost $330/year in today's money. Today's $3300 flat screen set, used for 5 years, will cost $660 a year since few TV buyers will keep that new set for a decade. If it survives the viewing wars when a new set beckons, however, it might be retired with honors to secondary duty in a den or bedroom. And today you can easily find a 65-inch set for $1500 or less, or $300/year if used for 5 years. Even that cheaper set offers far more in performance and features today than that 1970s CRT console ever could.

drny's picture

Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind....
It's 1970 all over again after reading your article.
Our new neighbors had the first console color TV on the block.
All the neighborhood kids (it seemed) crammed into that house to watch the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night at 7 pm.
Now back to the future, 2019, I have two 4k TV's, a Home Theater (with projector and Screen). I own over 40 UHD titles and 25 3D blurays, stream Netflix, Sling-two packages, Prime Video, good old fashion over the air Antenna on my roof, and still can not recapture Friday nights watching Zorro & Sunday's WWD).
Never mind my grand kids, they prefer to watch You tube videos on a cell's screen than on a TV display, mainly because they can post comments online. They do love viewing movies in a Dolby Cinema though.
I of course do covet the new LG 88" 8K OLED.
If I could get my wrinkly hands on one, I just may recapture the magic of that color Zenith in 1970, but I highly doubt it.

brenro's picture

We had cable in 1967 and a color TV in 1968. Why? So he could watch ball games of course. Before cable we had a rooftop antenna that could pull in a whopping four channels. Now here it is 2019 and I have an antenna on my roof. It gets considerably more than four channels and it's augmented by streaming services but I can't help but think that what was old is new again.

Billy's picture

In 1970 my family had only one TV for the house, a 17 inch black and white usually with a dirty tuning knob and horizontal and vertical controls that always needed adjusting. Worst of all, the 300 ohm antenna connection on the back gave you a nasty shock if you touched it, being dumbly inquisitive, I got shocked a lot. We could only watch one thing at a time. Daytime, good luck getting Mom away from those soap operas she let drone on while ironing Dad's underwear. (Yes, she really did that!) In the evening, it had to be a family vote, but my vote for Laugh-in got always over ruled because Mom and Dad thought it was too raunchy. How did we survive? Pretty well really, wish I could be young again and go back, just for a day even.

hk2000's picture

All the technology of the world wouldn't save today's programmers from their own stupidity. Yes I have a 4K UHD state of the art big screen TV, but I find myself watching mostly those old shows you mentioned along with a lot of B&W movies, just because there is really nothing new coming out that's worth watching!!!

Olaf the Snowman's picture

Now we have TVs that can stay hidden in the consoles, which can pop-up when we want to watch TV :-) .........

John_Werner's picture

My first "remembered" TV moment was in "63 when Kennedy was assassinated. Sure I was watching prior to this but this is etched into my memory. I was 4 and I told my mom the president has been shot to which she was in dis-belief that I had got it right. Of course I hadn't and this is my first TV seared memory. We had a Motorola floor model black and white. We got three channels. The TV had a turntable (can't remember the brand) and a Layfayette AM/FM tuner hooked up to it. At the time I just remember the volume knob was also the on/off (push) control I could operate aside from changing the channel with the "big knob". It would be a year or so before I knew how to switch on either the turntable or tuner for audio only use. Anyway this was my first brush with technology and even though the screen was somewhere in the 21"to 24" range as a kid I was in. It took me to places outside my little existence. This was the "family entertainment center' even though I had no clue as to this later tacked on moniker. I just knew it was amazing.

The thing is, and it rises up here, it didn't take me too long to realize that as great as 3 channels were (ABC affiliate, NBC affiliate, and PBS) I was already getting bored. Bored in some of the same ways you now buy a flatscreen and you want the larger or more feature adorned (better smart features) sets. Technology always makes you want more. We bore easily it would appear and infrastructure almost moves behind the hype.

I remember being an early adopter of HD when it was still 4:3 and limited to a few channels on DirecTV (it was so early you had to buy your own HD capable receivers of which RCA and Zenith were some of the earliest models). I bought a 35" HD CRT (about 1.3K) set and eventually two Zenith HD receivers at about $800 each. Because of scant available HD content I was ultimately disappointed more than pleased. For me it reached a tipping point when I put big money down to get the first Zenite rear projection set with 9" guns. I think It was around $7 or $8K by the time it was ready to be shipped. It was a massive fail as my intentions were to watch progressive scan DVDs. It would default to wrong aspect ratios often displaying the content twice side by side. Zenith, to their credit, had it repaired twice after which the second time it died. I was within a hour of Goldstar/Zenith's corporate headquarters and they agreed to refund me picking up the set. This kind of killed my video HD aspirations. At least as an early adopter. So what has this done to me a now 60-year old ripe age. It has pushed me back to simply watching my Uverse on basically two sets...a 32" small one and a now eight year old LG 55" one which was their first with local dimming (it still has a killer 1080i) pic with Uverse when Uverse is actually not giving me blocky artifacts, and it is great w/ standard and BD discs). In other words it brought me back to simpler expectations. I would say I've done the same with audio now believing 2-channel at it's best upstages surround.

I think I watch 80% of my movies and shows on my laptop. It's the same thing that killed quad in the early 70;s. Too much complication for me as everything I attempt to integrate ends up disappointing. I think sometimes I try too hard and want too much. I've just decided to simplify. I do have a Panasonic 47" plasma by the way and the only time it is ever turned on (w/ Uverse) is when we have to abscond to the basement due to potentially dangerous weather. I was a techno generation kid who really tried. I bought the first AR XA turntable (still a world beater in the way of acoustic isolation) when I was only 12. But I have always been let down as much as uplifted by the myriad wires and congestion of tech. That's why I listen to music with 2-speakers (and wireless earbuds) and watch the bulk of my video entertainment on my MacBook. Technology often gets far too messy. At this point I don't give a "rats" about 4 or 8K either.

maryhassler's picture

Remember the old days when you only needed to watch a movie, you had to wait until the weekend to watch it. But now technology has changed, thanks to smart phones we can go online to play candy clicker or watch anything we want. However, televisions are still indispensable in every family.

maryhassler's picture

This was my dream many years ago to be able to play candy clicker