Television sets: a 1940s device reimagined for the 2020s

The humble television has dropped dramatically in price while becoming ever more sophisticated. What will the TV of the future look like? Center director Jeffrey Cole explains.

By Jeffrey Cole

It’s a tough time to be a television set manufacturer. So much is being asked of the manufacturers: we expect them to spend billions of dollars to distinguish passing trends from lasting innovations.

The humble television set is an old technology (it began to appear in the 1940s). Over 70 years later, we expect it to become state of the art, and add features and perform functions not even dreamed of when television broadcast its first signal.

It used to be so easy for Zenith, Magnavox, Admiral, RCA and Sylvania: all they had to do was receive black and white signals over the VHF (2-13) band with not even a dream of a remote control.

In just one measure of how much has been completely transformed, none of those manufacturers exists anymore (a couple do under their names which were acquired and have nothing to do with their origins). All of those sets were made in the U.S. And, no one has touched a television set to change the channel in years. Today’s flat screens are designed so that you never touch the set: Samsung, Sony and LG don’t want our grubby hands anywhere near their beautiful works of art.

Just about the only thing that has stayed the same is that it is where we watch much of our video (even that has changed as viewing is now shared with phones, computers, and tablets).

How RCA created programming three times: video, color, and stereo

The television set manufacturers used to play a far more important role in our viewing than they do today: they created the first programming that gave broadcasting its start.

In the 1920s, RCA was the biggest maker of radios. There was just one problem: people weren’t going to buy radios unless there was good content to listen to, and no one was going to spend money on content if there were no radios. Someone had to break this logjam, or else radio would have remained a scientific toy or an emergency device.

RCA was willing to invest in programming (with no clear sense of any return on that investment) by creating a programming division whose sole purpose was to sell RCA radios (that was where the return was).

In 1926, they established a programming arm and called it the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). The sole reason for NBC’s existence was to sell RCA radios. The belief was that, as soon as other companies created programming and RCA radio sales were secure, NBC would fold. Instead, NBC became–and 93 years later still is–one of the dominant players in content creation.

Selling RCA hardware continued to be the main role of NBC through many new versions of what a television set became. It is no coincidence that NBC was the first broadcast network to go all color: it created the peacock as its multicolored symbol, which aired with the words “in living color” before each show.

The other networks (CBS and ABC) were successful in the 1950s and saw little reason to fix television by adding color because, “if it ain’t broke…” Converting to color meant expense and disruption. In a refrain from the 1920s, no one was going to create color television programming unless people had color television sets. Once again, RCA used NBC as a vehicle to sell television sets. When they moved to all color, sales of color TVs soared. The other networks had little choice but to follow.

The same thing happened with stereo sound in the 1980s. While the picture had consistently improved, the sound was terrible. High quality stereo systems for television sets were created, but it fell once again to NBC to be the first network to go fully to stereo.

This cycle came to an end in the late 1980s when RCA was sold and separated from NBC. Had RCA continued to make television sets and own NBC, we would have seen HDTV ten years earlier than we did.

The only manufacturer still involved in content creation is Sony, which is still smarting from the VHS vs. Betamax era of the 1970s. Sony still believes that Betamax videocassette recording technology was superior to VHS and that they lost that war because VHS did a better job of licensing movies.

Sony vowed never to be in that position again. In 1990, it gained a continuing supply of content by buying Columbia Pictures. Shortly thereafter, Matsushita (Panasonic) followed Sony and bought Universal Studios, but it quickly soured on the content business. Sony has never really integrated its hardware and software businesses, and rumors persist that the studio will be the target of an acquisition.

Samsung, today’s largest maker of televisions (and mobile phones), has wisely avoided buying a movie studio or television creator.

From over the air to underground: cable arrives, and then HD

Manufacturers face two mutually exclusive questions. Which innovations were merely fads designed to get people to buy new sets and would fade quickly? And which new innovations would permanently change the television landscape?

Starting around 2000, it was clear that audiences would fall in love with high definition television. The quality difference was obvious–spectacular to even an untrained eye. HDTV is now part of virtually every television set sold. Today, we see 4K television sets for sale at affordable prices, with 8K (an innovation that viewers don’t know they want) coming soon.

Most people are happy with HDTV pictures and have a hard time seeing a reason to upgrade.

We’ve seen this upgrade resistance before. Ten years ago, there was a serious effort to make 3D a regular part of the television (and movie) experience. Many bought 3D glasses and 3D sets. The problem was there was not enough content for 3D, and there was no RCA using NBC to move forcefully into 3D. There was also the belief that only in a few shows or movies does 3D enhance the experience enough to make it worth the extra effort and expense. 3D has disappeared from television but remains successful (along with IMAX) for a handful of event films.

The next evolutionary phase of television

All of this brings us to the fall of 2019.

Broadcast and cable continue as a shrinking part of the television experience. Streaming has become the center of the television universe. Netflix paved the way as the first highly successful streaming service. Viewers had to learn how to receive a streaming signal, and confusion ensued whether to use Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Firestick, or some other device. Netflix was so powerful that it could go to Sony and Samsung and get a red Netflix button on the remote control that takes the viewer directly to the channel. I would love to know the financial terms of those deals, but no one’s talking.

November will see the premiere of the highly anticipated Disney+ as well as Apple TV+. How will consumers find and receive those channels? Mass confusion is likely to reign (for a day or so) for the first Disney+ subscribers.

As Warner, Universal, and other studios begin their streaming experiments, manufacturers will have to rethink their smart television sets. There isn’t room for a special remote button for each of these services. Receiving streaming channels will have to be as easy as going to a setup screen, checking the services you get, and then being able to find and watch them effortlessly. It needs to be like the old days of moving the channel up through 2, 4, and 7.

Television used to be a one-way device. Today’s smart sets will constantly be evolving into two-way devices that add digital assistants (Alexa, Google Home, and Siri) as well as medical devices, encyclopedias of non-fictional content, and much more. These new sets will need to allow seamless switching from television sets to computers, phones, and tablets.

The new smart television sets need to be at the centers of our homes, where we control all our appliances, security systems, as well as buying whatever the household needs. The next generation of smart television sets will become medical devices, allowing us to check bodily functions, exercise, communicate with doctors, and serve as panic buttons.

That’s quite a burden to place on a device that gets less and less expensive. Thirteen years ago, a fat 46-inch HD television set cost about $4,000. Today, a 65-inch, ultra-thin, 4K television set goes for $600. That’s an 85% drop in less than a generation. Television sets are being asked to do more and more for far less money.

Today manufacturers are not willing to invest in content. We have 4K sets with little to watch and 8K with nothing to watch. This is what killed 3D. It is unclear who will drive the next cycle of innovation. In these columns I have speculated about Apple eventually buying Disney. If they did it would bring back the days of hardware companies creating content (Sony notwithstanding). An Apple/Disney combination could continue to drive the next phase of innovation. If not them then perhaps Microsoft or Google.

There are other appliances and devices that have been around as long or longer than the television set. Some have barely changed in 100 years: toilets or toasters, for example. Others—like washing machines, refrigerators, and dishwashers—have added digital dials and become more complicated. However, these devices still do essentially what they’ve always done: clean clothes, keep food cold, and wash dishes.

The television set is different: it not only added color, stereo, high (and very high) definition, it also made watching television only part of its job description. The television set has been disrupted and replaced by a completely new device. It used to be the center of our leisure lives: now it is on track to become the center of everything in the home.



Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

October 16, 2019