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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Would You Pay $8,000 for a TV?

Ultrathin TVs won’t come cheap. But mere flatscreens bore us.

  • January 4, 2012

One Christmas Eve in the mid-13th century, a devout woman named Chiara Offreduccio found herself too ill to attend the Mass in her town of Assisi. Confined to her convent room, far from the church, the woman began to hear fervent chants and to see images of the nativity, “as though she were present in person” at the Mass, as Pope Pius XII would write centuries later.

LG’s OLED TV. Credit: LG.

The television is a device that projects images and sounds originating elsewhere into your living room; it is used to broadcast programs across the country and world, and to present to us various other forms of entertainment, including an ever-growing universe of immersive video games. Since its inception decades ago, it has been one of our most hypnotic devices, a technological marvel and cultural dynamo. Chiara Offreduccio, who is now known to the Catholic Church as Clare of Assisi, would become the medium’s patron saint, following Pius’s decree. In other words, the television works, daily and hourly, a feat once rightly considered a miracle.

And yet it’s not enough. According to the Wall Street Journal, we are bored by TV. Not by what’s on TV—by the TVs themselves. There’s nothing worse than a product that has reached its telos, its design endpoint. How do you hype it? How do you market it as new? “[M]akers of TVs, and manufacturers of display panels used in them, badly need new features to boost consumer excitement,” says the WSJ, citing “steep profit declines” among TV manufacturers.

Though the great hope that was the 3-D television turned out not to be so helpful (one firm says only 8 percent of North American unit sales are of 3-D TV’s), the next savior may be the skinny TV, we are now told. If you’re anything like me, you’re already floored (walled?) by how slim televisions have become. But for our feature-hungry, miracle-jaded public, our TVs must. be. slimmer.

LG, for instance, will soon be introducing a 55-inch TV that’s just 3/16 of an inch thick and weighs just 16.5 pounds. Samsung is expected to introduce a competing set with similar specs. We don’t know how much either will charge—we hope to find out next week at CES–but one firm called NPD DisplaySearch told the Journal that the launch price could be $8,000. (A price tag is a “feature” that can excite only the very rich.)

One commenter on the Journal story, John Cooper, writes, I think aptly: “There was value in reducing the thickness from 30 inches to 5 inches. TV’s could then fit in a range of new places. There is almost no value in reducing the thickness from the current 3 inches to 1 inch.” To produce so large and so narrow a screen is a feat of engineering, to be sure (and the Journal has some nice details about the innovations required to prevent a huge OLED screen from sagging in the middle). But necessary? I don’t see it.

There are, of course, good reasons to press ahead with OLED technology–the fact that they don’t require a light source (the panels emit light themselves) could ultimately make them less costly, in the long run. And surely there are other uses of ultra-light TVs that we can’t yet quite envision. But this idea–that we’re such jaded consumers that technologies bore us once they cannot be greatly improved upon–is dispiriting. We might do better being satisfied, for once, with what we already have. That, though, would take a miracle.

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