The Skinny on Big TVs

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Cringely suggests that The Missing Link in home theater adoption — and thus sales — is an industry standard for wireless speakers.

But I found this prelude to his main point more interesting:

Something unanticipated happened that has driven LCD and plasma TV sales higher than expected. The fact that these new sets are skinny and can be hung on a wall has changed the way we buy televisions, not just in the U.S. but globally.

There has for almost a century now been a space carved out in most American living rooms for a piece of consumer electronic furniture. Originally it was a console radio complete with gleaming wooden cabinetry. Later the radio was replaced with a TV of comparable size or larger. We positioned our furniture to help us see or hear better, changing the social dynamics of our living spaces. Rooms came to be sized with televisions in mind. And the biggest analog TV screen in my era were 21-23 inches measured diagonally, a size dictated both by the economics of glass blowing and by the maximum cabinet depth the manufacturers thought they could get away with.

Bigger sets were rare because they were expensive but also because they required bigger rooms. Projection sets went into American homes as a result, rather than into homes in Europe or Asia with their generally smaller rooms. And because the size of the market was limited in this way, so too were limited the economies of scale that could be enjoyed by the projection TV makers. Big sets were not only more expensive — they were a LOT more expensive.

Then along came plasma and then LCD displays, which could be hung on a wall taking no floor space at all. Wonder of wonder, when these TVs started selling in Japan most of the buyers were replacing smaller sets with ones that were substantially larger. You could put a honking-big TV in a tiny room if you liked — especially if it was a tight-grained 1080p set. Japanese customers started buying bigger sets, economies of scale began to kick-in so those sets got cheaper so people bought sets that were bigger still. The size effect happened everywhere, too. People the world over are buying bigger sets than ever because they can hang them on a wall.

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