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The bygone days of television
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

There was a time not too long ago that you bought a TV not based on a long list of tech specifications but what the TV looked like.

Concerns about looks had nothing to do with the screen and images broadcast. They were pretty much all the same. It was what the TV physically looked like.

Today everything is a flat screen. Your color choice is basically black although once in a while some TV manufacturer whips out a white version.

After almost a year by design without a TV, I bought one Saturday.

I saved $20 by not buying it online via Amazon. I bought it at Best Buy that all of the experts had predicted would be long dead by now given Amazon at one point had helped relegate it to a showroom of sorts for its products. 

If the truth be told I never intended to buy a TV online at Amazon. I just price compared after I came up with five different smart TVs I was considering. That’s when I found out that Best Buy was cheaper in four instances.

Even though $169 is chump change for Jeff Bezos, I prefer to make a decision spending that kind of money on stuff I can see side by side not on a webpage of 20 similar products or in an info-video but in real time. It also helps to have a few people around who I can actually ask questions about what I’m looking at to possibly buy.

The biggest tech decision buying a TV some 50 plus years ago was to go black and white or try the newfangled color that wasn’t always lifelike but it was color. The price difference between color and black and white was hundreds of dollars putting it out of reach of most given the minimum wage of the day was $1.25 an hour.

The biggest choice you have was what the “screen” and accompanying electronics were encased in. That involved a console that typically was made of heavy wood — think mahogany or maple — with a speaker hidden behind cloth-like material that was as large as the viewing screen. The top-of-the-line models were larger than today’s office verandas and were marketed as an entertainment center with a built-in stereo player as well as AM/FM radio.

Back in the heyday of TV consoles it took two strong men forced to resort to awkward handgrips given the boxy shape of many TVs back then. There, of course, were fewer imposing consoles or furniture cabinets that TVs were placed into by manufacturers. Then there were small TVs. In the early 1950s they were about 50 percent larger than a large microwave oven with a screen covering perhaps a third of the front. The dawn of the 1960s brought better, plastics and small TVs became portable so that you could move without risking a hernia even though they were still on the heavy side but definitely a lot lighter than the formal TV consoles.

The TV console my parents bought new in 1955 to match the mahogany dining room furniture weighed close to 100 pounds. It was black and white with 12 channels. For optimum reception you needed a tall roof antenna that had to be orientated just right to not just simply get a picture but to avoid snow. Browsing websites, I found a TV similar to what they bought cost $209 back in 1954. Adjusted for inflation, that is the equivalent of spending more than $2,000 today. I am also sure it was delivered in a pickup if not a full-sized delivery truck.

On Saturday I paid $50 less than they did in actual 1955 dollars. I got a bigger screen. Instead of cable running up to the roof top to an antenna I get the “signal” from WiFi using a router. In terms of offerings, the best way to describe the various things you can watch is comparing the channel selection 55 years ago to an In-n-Out menu and what I can access on my new TV to the inventory options of an IKEA store.

Apps that allow you to access TVs and movies have also replaced TV guides. And while remote controls aren’t that new, with a smart TV if I want, I can get off my duff and “change the channel” by touching the screen instead of fiddling with dials.

Those TV dials were the source or more than a few terse pronouncements from parents. Turn them too hard and they’d come off. And when they ended up getting broken, replacing them with a new knob wasn’t cheap or quick to do given the part usually had to be ordered. That meant you’d resort to using a butter knife to change the channels or adjust the volume.

Moving the TV around is no longer an ordeal. The smart TV I bought weighs 19 pounds and fit with ease in the back of my Ford Focus.

You might be getting the picture that dollar for dollar what we spend on a TV today is dirt cheap compared to 1955 even though I ended up spending just a bit less than my parents did when they bought their first new TV.

The technology, selection, quality of the picture, overall weight — basically everything — is light years away from 1955. Meanwhile to match what $1 bought in 1955 you’d have to spend $9.41 today due to inflation.

By that standard the smart TV I bought cost me in terms of today’s dollars 2.5 percent of what I would have paid 64 years ago for a TV yet I have arguably a 1,000 times better product.

So, it begs the question:  Can you honestly say that a dollar does not buy as much as it once did? Between product advances and prices not mimicking inflation based on rudimentary technology, you could make a case we are spending pennies for what would have costs as hundreds of dollars had it been around 55 years ago.

And nothing better illustrates that point than televisions.