Do you love to be scared? Do you think that the most sublime moment in American cinema is the scene in "Alien" where that Cuisinart with eyes comes ripping out of that guy's chest? While your friends were playing with Barbie or GI Joe, did you ask for a Godzilla doll for Christmas? Do you think Stephen King is a laugh a minute?
Then try this one: It's Jan. 27 in Tampa. The Super Bowl. It's late in the fourth quarter. The Niners (yes, the Niners) are down by six and Joe Montana is getting That Look. He's driving. It's fourth and three and they decide to go for it. Montana drops back, Jerry Rice slips a defender and breaks into the clear. Montana sets, releases and BEEEEeeeeooooooop. . . .
The picture on the TV implodes into a tiny white dot. Something in the guts of the box has given up the ghost.
The crowd you've invited over for the game goes berserk. They scream. They tear their hair. They sling clam dip against the walls. They bang on the TV. It refuses to work. They rip it from the wall and throw it out the window. They come at you with chairs. They punch you silly and then break into the neighbors' house, crazed for a functional TV. The police come. Your friends tell their story. The cops arrest you. They throw away the key. You rot in prison. Charles Manson is your roommate.
Hideous, isn't it? The stuff of sweaty nightmares. Let me make it a little worse: If your TV is about 10 years old, you may be viewing on borrowed time.
The days when something behind the picture tube went poof and Ed Sullivan disappeared from view and a little wisp of smoke trailed out of the box may be gone. No longer do you stumble down to the drugstore with dad, your arms full of suspicious vacuum tubes, to plug each one of them in turn into the mysterious tube tester and watch the little needle confirm every one of them as being either broken or in perfect working order.
No, today's television sets have only one vacuum tube--the picture tube--and are filled not with little hunks of glass that light up, but a labyrinth of sophisticated solid state circuits that normally keep chugging away for years, providing fans of "Love Boat" reruns with the finest in video entertainment.
Still, no one has managed to design a printed circuit that is eternal, so TVs continue to break. They just don't do it as often. They are, however, governed by the same natural laws that apply to a dropped open-face peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. Just as the sandwich never lands sticky side up, the TV never breaks during summer reruns. It always goes while you're watching Episode 5 of "The Civil War." The reasons are complex.
"It's like an automobile," said James Walker, a repair technician for SOS TV and Video in Corona del Mar. "You never know what's going to happen to it."
The most common ailment, he said, is a loss of power, which could be the result of a power surge or a shorted-out (meaning old) circuit board, among other things. The litany of other woes sound just as familiar: no picture, no sound, a certain channel doesn't work, one set of channels comes in snowy, another set is fine. Those complaints, Walker said, are the most common.
And amateur sleuthing and trouble-shooting is out. There's nothing in the box that can be taken down to the drugstore and tested. Printed circuits are inscrutable, and need a pro to diagnose them.
But, Walker said, chances are that the TV won't have to be junked. Generally, he said, it's not necessary to toss the set to cut your losses.
"A little Sony TV, say a 13-inch that you spent $150 to $200 on and the picture tube goes, it isn't worth it to have it repaired," he said. "But if you buy a TV that costs $1,000 and up, anything that goes wrong with that TV is worth repairing."
The average cost to repair a living room-size TV, Walker said, generally ranges between $80 and $150. If the picture tube goes, it'll cost between $300 and $400. That's the bad news.
The good news is that modern television sets can keep beaming away for a decade or more without seeing the inside of a TV repair shop.
"It depends on what the make is," Walker said. "You can go out and buy these $200 TVs that are made in Korea, and I can almost guarantee you that they'll break within three years. But a $1,000 Sony should last at least that long, and if it doesn't, there's probably a manufacturing defect. It should last 10 years."
If you get the idea that Walker likes Sony, you're right. He thinks that company's high-end models--costing around $1,000 and more--are the best and most trouble-free TVs on the market.
In the more moderate price range, he recommends Magnavox, RCA and Sharp.