Electronic philosopher Marshall McLuhan used to be widely quoted as saying, “Television reintegrates the human senses, thereby making books obsolete.” TV critic Michael J. Arlen had something to say about that: “Oh, boy, some life of the senses is my thought for the week, with Brother and Sis upstairs in the kids’ communication room watching ‘Uncle Don’s Visit to the Fulton Fish Market,’ which they can’t smell, and Mom and Dad curled up on Acrilan grass in Dad’s windowless information center, holding hands and watching a 24-hour weather program.”
When McLuhan and Arlen were saying those things in the sixties, they hadn’t seen anything yet. They hadn’t seen what would soon be hatching in bars and restaurants and most importantly in growing numbers of private homes: the Mutated Muntzes, the Monster Sonys, the Abominable Advents, with eyes as big as the movies.
Like it or not, big screen television is here. It’s been incubating silently while everybody was watching Jerry Ford and worrying about the recession. The whole economic stupor of the seventies had managed to force families to entertain themselves at home. And a few of these families found themselves gathered around these giant screens that snapped, crackled and popped louder and with more hot emotion than any of the cool little boxes had before.
Mae West once said the reason she never appeared on television was she didn’t want to appear smaller than life. Well, up on that giant screen, Mae West comes looming out like the fifth face of Rushmore, hot, bawdy and commanding. You can’t escape her, just like you can’t escape the big screen.
The technology has been around for quite awhile for what some psychologists call “the ultimate idiot box.” Large screen color television was available on an experimental basis in 1929. During the following decades the big screens were available only for commercial purposes and sold for as much as $44,000. During the late fifties, a black and white big screen was available to consumers for only $29,999 and was minor fad among the wealthy. But not until the last couple of years has the price been anywhere near the range of many private individuals. Now the estimated 30,000 big screens in the U.S. are creating group television viewing not unlike the early days of the little screen.
The big screens function basically in two ways; reflection or projection. They range in size from about four feet to seven feet diagonally, and in price, from $895 to $5000. The best and most expensive big screen for the home is offered by Advent. The Advent 1000 has a projection unit separate from the seven-foot diagonal screen. If you can do without a first or second car, you can buy the Advent 1000 for $3,995, or $4,995 if you want a remote control version.
Since the projection unit runs on the same amount of energy as a regular color television, there is relatively little danger from radiation. In addition to light, sound is projected onto the curved screen and bounces back at the viewer.
The whole contraption takes about as much space as a ping-pong table, but apparently that’s too much for a lot of big screen consumers; the new Advent 750 has a six foot diagonal screen and sells for only $2,495. The advantage it has over the bigger model is that the projection unit sits closer to the screen and looks more like a walnut veneer piece of furniture. It also has remote control. This particular model is starting to outsell the Advent 1000 and is geared specifically toward the home market.
The Advent 750’s chief competitor is the popular Sony KP4000, which sells for $2,500 with remote control. The screen is smaller though, only 40 inches diagonally. The best thing about the Sony is it’s one unit and doesn’t dominate the room like the Advent.
At the end of the spectrum is the Muntz self-contained unit, which has an inferior picture to either the Sony or Advent, but sells for considerably less: $1,395 for a 30 by 40 inch screen and remote control. Muntz also sells an $895 two piece projection set, which Muntz dealer Clifford Webb says is a “waste of money." Basically it’s just an enlargement system for a regular sized television, which you have to buy separately.
The Muntz came early to San Diego, though, and has proved popular. Webb estimates that 60 percent of his sales have been to restaurants and bars and 40 percent to private homes. Sales to private homes are taking a dramatic upturn, according to Webb, and what surprises him most is that the units have been as popular with low or middle income customers as with wealthy customers.
“They buy it on time just like a second car,” he says. “It’s incredible. I don’t understand it.”
Joe Gordon, a cook at the Black Angus, is one of the customers who bought a Muntz on credit from Webb. Gordon, who lives alone, has had his giant screen for nine months and the novelty still hasn’t worn off. He watches it from 3:30 in the afternoon to 11:00 every night. "I turn the lights on to read sometimes and the picture is still fine,” he says. “ I never did go to that many movies. Outside of work, it’s pretty much my life. I got nothing better to do.”
Larry Norris, a salesman who lives in Poway, says his family has been rather hypnotized by the Muntz he bought several months ago. Like Gordon, he reports that the novelty hasn’t yet worn off. “It’s like being at the movies,” he says.
“It’s easier to concentrate on the programs. I notice my kids are more interested in some of the educational programs than they were before.The screen just knocks their socks off. We’re more a part of what we’re watching, more involved. And I’ve definitely noticed that we have much higher emotional peaks when we’re watching it.”
Norris says that his family watches a minimum of six to eight hours a day of television, and as high as ten hours a day on weekends. He says the time spent watching television by his family hasn’t increased, but the intensity with which they watch the screen has.
Even though the family has four other regular size color television sets in the house, the smaller sets are rarely turned on. Norris thinks the big screens are going to be accepted more and more by middle income families like his. “Especially when the economic problems we’re having now end, and the price of the units goes down, I think they’re really going to take off. My brother's thing about getting one now.”
Dr. Milton Krell of La Jolla claims he bought one of the original Advent screens available to the general consumer. “I read about it in a ’74 issue of Playboy,” he says. “I’d read about Henry Kloss, the genius behind Advent, the guy who also developed the famous KLH high fidelity speakers, so I called him in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
Krell’s Advent 1000 arrived in time for a house-warming party and he and his wife haven’t paid much attention to regular size televisions ever since. Krell recently traded in his 1000 for a self-contained model 750, and says the smaller unit is bound to find a big market. “It’s like going to the movies instead of watching a little idiot box,” he says. “The violence is more involving, that’s for sure. The other day I was watching a football game and you could have sworn the guys were puddling around in the living room.”
When Krell watches the news on the big screen he has absolute spasms. “I love Trisha Toyota, the newscaster in L.A. When they move in for the closeups of her skin... oh! Last night they had closeups of Olivia Newton-John’s face fading in through the mist, and you should have seen her skin!”
Questions arise. Is there an antidote to these things? Will the novelty wear off? How will they affect programming, and more importantly, how will they affect the programmed? Is Dr. Krell shuttled by his screen into true nirvana by the pores on Trisha Toyota’s nose, or is he merely a dermatologist?
Dr. Don Wiley, Professor of Telecommunication and Film at San Diego State, says the jury is still out on whether big screens change the essential nature of television. “But I tend to think they must,” he says. “So far the academic world has pretty much ignored the whole thing. 1 don’t even know if McLuhan has seen one.” '
Wiley says that students usually prefer the big screens as teaching aids, even when smaller sets are still available in the same room, and even when the smaller television may have a better picture.
Though some psychologists have said there is virtually no difference between the large and small screens, Wiley thinks the intensity brought to a big screen may just magnify the problems already attributed to television, such as the phenomenal control advertisers have learned to exert over children. Psychologist Kenneth O’Bryan of the University of Toronto is convinced that it’s not the content of the commercial that makes a child react, but rather the method by which it is presented. O’Bryan says a good commercial is something like a Greek drama, which moves subjects to and from “periods of high arousal.” much like those Larry Norris says are magnified for his children by the big screen.
There is, according to Wiley, speculation among the academics that excellent shows like Sesame Street may in fact be doing more harm than good with all the peak and valley manipulation. “A child may grow up expecting things to happen to him in a stimulating fashion, instead of having to go out and create stimulation, and later, as an adult, he may have a tough time having calm, reflective hours. As screens get bigger, there will be more effective manipulation, more violence, and children will feel much more involved in the whole spectacle.”
Wiley says the typical American child has watched 3000 to 5000 hours of television before he even gets to kindergarten, well over a third of all his waking hours. Upon graduation from high school, the average students will have logged 15,000 hours of television but only 10,800 in school. The same high school graduate has gone through the peaks and valleys of a quarter million commercials. As an adult, he will spend more time watching television than any other waking activity except work. So the specter of all of this pure, grinding power made bigger and more in command, is something to ponder the next time you’re not watching TV. (McLuhan recently did an about face and wrote off the whole TV generation. He said, “The generation that crawled out of the woodwork...affords little possibility of communication. They are a group of semi-illiterates in our Jules Verne period of outdated science fiction.” So much for reintegrating the human senses.)
But along with the dark possibilities of big screen television come more hopeful signals.
In a phone conversation, Henry Kloss, the father of consumer big screen television, could barely control his enthusiasm (which seemed more sincere than sales-oriented) and his frustration that the screen wasn’t having the effect on programming that he had hoped it would.
“I first assembled the device from existing technology for my own private use. I wanted to get more out of TV, and as we started to market it to the general public I hoped that the television producers, seeing their shows on the big screens, would recognize the theatrical possibilities of the medium.” The producers and businessmen of television have ignored the screen, but Kloss said actors, writers, and directors have seen the potential to bring some heat to a medium cool.
If the big screen catches on, Kloss believes the most dramatic change will occur among those people who seldom watch television. “There’s a lot of intellectuals here in Cambridge who, as a matter of pride, never watch TV. They’re the ones who will be most shocked by how much potential this medium really has. They’ll find themselves watching television more and more.
“By the time the price is lower and the screens are available to more people, the technology will be offering more choices, like wider use of video games, video tape players, and video cameras for home ‘movies.’ By that time, a whole range of possibilities and choices will be available. Viewers won’t be shackled to what the networks dish out. The big screens will encourage us to treat television more seriously, like theatre. What worries me is that the businessmen and producers won’t, and the amount of lousy programming now on the air will still exist. I came late to television. I never used to watch it. I was sickened by the kind of programs we’re subjected to, and I hate to see those blown up and made more intense by the big screen. I’m no longer very hopeful that there will be less junk on TV; we’ll just have more choices, we’ll be more in control of our own home systems.”
Kloss always thought that low and middle income people would take to the big screens — after all, who buys power boats and campers? But the banks didn’t share his enthusiasm, and Advent has gone through some hard times. Sales of the 750model,though, are showing that giant screens may yet be a popular consumer item. Kloss, who has given up his post as president of Advent, says the company is going to come out with a lower-priced screen in the next few years that will cost around $1000 and will be nearly as good a screen as the 750.
And other brands are on the way. Admiral and Gulf & Western will produce giant screens soon. Sony is expected to improve their screen. And Advent is only now beginning to get its marketing organization focused on the general consumer.
So sometime in the next few years, you may be gasping at the clarity of Archie Bunker’s giant nose hairs, or succumbing to the seduction of Mae West, as she steps out of the eye as big as the movies and into your living room, all hot and full of hypnotic power.
On the other hand, the whole phenomenon could be a flash in the tube. But not likely.