As recently as five years ago, behemoth televisions with blurry pictures and helter-skelter hues were confined to dark rooms in smoke-filled sports bars.
But today, compact giants with crisp, clear images are multiplying in the brightly lit living rooms of video-crazed families.
"They've taken this little box and changed it into something exciting," said Paul Goldenberg, owner of Paul's TV in La Habra. "On regular TVs, you can't see anything. Now there's fun and life."
Goldenberg, the self-proclaimed "King of Big Screen," said more than $16 million in big-screen TVs were sold last year from his 2,600-square-foot store. The store stocks more than 1,000 monster sets and sports viewing chairs.
Up to 130 deliveries were made in a single pre-Super Bowl day, he said.
Retailers and manufacturers say the drive to own the big screens comes from recent technological improvements that made the picture on the larger screens as good as that on conventional-tube ("direct-view") TVs. Add to that the advent of videocassette recorders and videos, and people think about turning their homes into theaters.
"When you were looking at 'Casablanca' with talking heads in black and white, 20 inches was fine," said Bruce Schoenegge, vice president of product manufacturing for Hitachi Sales. Corp. in Compton. "But now, 'Star Wars' on a 20-inch set is different."
And then there are those sports fanatics.
"Football fans are in seventh heaven when the action comes up 6,000%," salesman David Curran said at Paul's TV. "All of a sudden, it all comes to reality. They yell, 'Give me the ball!' because they think they're there. Or guys will come in here on a Saturday, see a boxing match and start ducking when the punches come."
A big-screen TV, defined as one with a screen diagonal larger than 35 inches, is actually projection TV, which is quite different and more expensive to manufacture than conventional TVs.
Schoenegge said conventional TVs have a single glass picture tube with thousands of three-dot groups in red, green and blue on the surface. An electron gun energizes the dots at astronomical speeds of varying intensity to create the range of color shades.
"For a lot of years, 25 or 26 inches was all you could get" because of glass and gun limits in the tube, Schoenegge said.
"Now you can get 35 inches, and it's at the upper limit of the technology," the Hitachi vice president said. "To get the picture any bigger would cost a tremendous amount of dollars and make production prohibitive."
Early wide-screen TVs in the '70s were unwieldy, lumbering front-projection units that produced inferior pictures and color. But about five years ago, the technology shifted to rear-screen projection, a technique that now has made screens up to 70 inches in free-standing cabinets widely available.
These TVs have three small tubes, one each in blue, green and red. The tubes operate with magnifying lenses and mirrors that project the image and make the picture larger.
"But what also happened is we now have a fairly limited amount of light spreading out over a large surface," Schoenegge said. "As a result, on projection TVs, as the picture gets bigger, the light gets dimmer. It's just like pointing a flashlight beam. So there are still limitations on how big you want to go."
Manufacturers and dealers say the most popular size is from 45 to 50 inches. High-production models that size have a picture and brightness equal to direct-view sets, provide the big-screen experience, take up no more floor space than large conventional sets and do not require a big room for viewing.
Unlike direct-view TV that can be watched from any angle and distance, there are restrictions on a rear-projection TV. For example, it usually cannot be watched from a close standing position or other extreme vertical angles. The picture appears grainy from distances of less than about 7 feet.
But with recent improvements, today's slick sets can be watched in more brightly lit rooms and from wider horizontal angles than in the past, manufacturers said.
"What the customer ends up getting with 50 inches is a phenomenally large picture that doesn't take up any more floor space than conventional televisions," Schoenegge said. "The most important thing for a person to do is compare sets side by side in the store while seated and make a value judgment on how much they want to pay."
The price is not cheap.
Conventional TVs cost from $200 to $800. Projection TVs range from $1,600 to $5,000--and up.
And because of fixed high production costs, the price for big sets is unlikely to drop dramatically, manufacturers say.
To aid consumers in buying such sets, dealers and manufacturers offer financing and special interest-free promotions.
"Considering that the average life of a set is eight to 10 years, the difference in price is not that much over the long run," Hitachi's Schoenegge said. "That's when people begin to say, 'Well, maybe it's worth it.' "