CES Countdown: 358 days to CES2009

It must be the week after the Consumer Electronics Show: I'm all written out on consumer electronics, my feet hurt, and I have a cold. All three happen every year.

I spent my downtime yesterday—my "travel day" back from Las Vegas got me home around 2am Saturday, so that day was essentially shot—surfing the web, looking at CES reports. Somehow, every year, the mainstream press gets the focus wrong, concentrating on what will be the next big thing. Large electronics companies don't know what the next big thing is—they're just throwing a bunch of spaghetti on the wall, hoping some of it will stick.

Smaller cell phones? Go to any Manhattan bar on a Friday night and you'll see the glitterati frantically toggling the minuscule phones from ear to mouth to ear—or else keeping them at ear height and screaming. Yeah, smaller is precisely what we need.

The iTaser. BMAFG! The only need I can see for this product is (to use Dave Barry's assessment) if it shocks you for listening to Barry Manilow.

(Note: BM fans don't write and tell me how nice he is—I'm sure he is and he'll probably make somebody a wonderful grandmother, but I believe there's something wrong with a songwriter recording "I Write the Songs." Which, of course, he didn't).

Naturally the MSM said that this was the year of bigger flatter TVs. Maybe so. Reading EOY sales figures, I noticed that the mean size of a video display is now 48". There are already lots of bigger ones—and Panasonic introduced a 150" plasma monitor at CES—but presumably 48" is the most display many people are willing to pay for.

In one way, I completely understand that. The CE industry has done a crap job of promoting hi-def video. Has anybody reading this ever been in a bar showing sports on a large display flat screen monitor where the aspect ratio was set properly? My hotel at CES had 48" LG monitors (with a very helpful breakout box placed next to the desk for business presentations). On digital HD channels, it was a stunning advertisement for HDTV. On the other 30 channels everything was stretched and distorted. I'd stayed there for three days before I discovered the aspect ratio submenu on the hotel remote—and I'd been looking for it. The take-away for most guests would have been that HDTVs make pictures look distorted.

And the bigger the picture, the worse non-HD looks. (Actually, the most stunning TV image I saw at CES2008 was the relatively modest 17" Sony OLED, which looked as good as any daily footage I've ever seen—yes, it was more detailed and saturated than most commercial 35mm prints.)

Back in the early days of radio—at least, according to David Sarnoff, a somewhat self-aggrandizing historian—the Radio Corporation of America had its sales reps drop into bars to see if they had radios or were playing them if they did have one. Maybe LG, Panasonic, et al should take a page out of that playbook and hire video reps to teach bartenders to set up the TVs properly.

Oh, who am I kidding?

I've been to press events where TV manufacturers were touting their new, improved, detailed, color-accurate monitors, and the displays behind the talking heads were in the wrong aspect ratio!

Worse, nobody in the press corps (including me) had the chutzpah to ask, "How can you sell a better TV if you can't even set it up correctly?"

The sheer quantity of poorly set-up video displays almost had me chuckling at the stupid prank Gizmodo's Richard Blakely pulled at CES2008—taking along a TV-B-Gone and turning off displays right and left.

Almost, but not quite. It was childish in the extreme and Blakely, quite rightly, will never again get even a whiff of CEA Press credentials. Now, if the stunt had had a point—say, if Blakely had managed to hack only poorly set-up monitors with a message such as "Why buy our HDTV when we can't even get the picture right?"—I might defend that as art or a satire on consumer culture or something. Maybe.

The big electronics companies pay a fortune to set up those large displays in the Convention Center, and they do it to show their audience—not so much press like me, but electronics buyers—what they can plan on selling over the next year. Shutting down a bank of displays during Motorola's presentation is, as UAV's editor Shane Buettner observed, "tortuous interference," which is not only in poor taste, but actionable.

If I were Blakely, I'd beware of strangers holding folded papers for a few weeks.

So enough ranting about what CES isn't, at least for this attendee. Tune in tomorrow for the reasons why, despite the sore feet, inevitable cold, and overall post-show crankiness, this writer signs on again every year.

(Hint: It isn't just the gear.)

Mark Fleischmann's picture

The aspect ratio problem extends into TV production, where professionals supposedly rule the roost. How many times have you watched a news broadcast and seen a panel behind the anchor showing something in the wrong shape? Or, in the middle of a program, been subjected to a video or film clip that's obviously misshapen? It's amazing that people who should know better get away with this stuff and still keep their jobs.

ljennifer's picture

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