Local retailers are preparing for the coming television revolution.

Crisp footage of little men fleeing black horses alternated with brilliantly colored tropical fish.

The pictures filled a corner of the Lewiston Sears store, where the TVs are priced from $1,000 to $10,000.

One year ago, the store had two or three of the new generation of bigger, wider, clearer TVs. Now, it has dozens.

The local Sears sells two or three every day, say salespeople. They’re selling in other local stores, too: Agren Appliance, BJ’s Warehouse and Rent-A-Center.

Aaron’s, another rent-to-own shop, plans to stop selling traditional TVs in the coming months.

Yet, few people know what the new TVs – known as HD or high definition TVs – are all about.

“I’d say one in 50 understand them,” said Jim Cole, who works in the recently expanded electronics department at Sears. “They don’t know what they can do. They don’t know what they can’t do.”

The TVs are part of a coming revolution.

Extreme makeover

At the end of 2006, the analog signals that transmit the shows most people watch on their TVs will go out.

Like seemingly everything else in our lives, TV is going digital.

Experts say the change was needed to catch up with modern technology. In its most basic sense, TV signals have gone unchanged since 1939, when they were unveiled at the world’s fair in New York City.

In the decades since, they have become more reliable. In the late 1950s, they began a change to color. In the 1980s, they began transmitting a weak stereo signal. No one wanted to make the sets in people’s homes obsolete so changes were small.

Big ones are coming.

In the late 1990s, Congress mandated TV’s extreme makeover. Federal lawmakers set up a timetable for broadcast TV stations to build new digital transmitters.

Most of the stations, including all of the local channels, have finished their physical transformation. They have begun transmitting shows digitally and, in part, in high definition. They are pictures only people with the new sets can see.

“I compare the difference in picture quality to the difference in a Polaroid picture and a standard 35-mm image,” said Bob Van Vlack, the sales manager at Agren Appliance in Auburn. “It’s that much clearer.”

People can also buy special boxes, like a cable converter box, that will be able to accept the new signals and convert them into the old format. But, they will be missing a lot.

Clearer picture

The difference is in the number of lines that create every TV image.

The standard TV signal that we all know is made of about 260 lines of information, Van Vlack said. A DVD image is better, sending out about 425 lines.

The new HD signal has about 1,080 lines, building pictures on four times as much detail as an ordinary TV signal.

Van Vlack has been selling the TVs at the Auburn store for about three years. But many customers believe the sets are merely bigger.

“Nobody understands it,” Van Vlack said. Even if they understand what the new signal means, they may not understand the new TVs or the inequalities between them and the old sets.

Somebody may spend $2,000 for a TV with “HD” stamped on the side and still be unable to receive digital signals or their high-end HD pictures.

Many of the sets that are sold as HDTVs are merely HD compatible, meaning they can display a digital or high definition signal only if they are attached to a converter. It’s a set-top box that can cost as much as $500.

Some TVs come with the equipment built in. Salespeople at some stores don’t even know the difference, Van Vlack said.

“People can go home, turn on their TVs and nothing new happens,” he said. People need to be told everything about what they’re buying.

“The change is going to come quicker than everybody thinks,” Van Vlack said.

Jim Cole, who works at Sears, believes teaching people about the TVs is part of his job.

In some cases, that means helping people with the regular, less pricey TVs in the store. But much of his work is among the big sets, some as large as refrigerators.

Be prepared

“I want to see that one,” said Jack Gamache, pointing at the Sony with the 48-inch screen.

The retiree from Lisbon Falls showed up different than most customers.

Gamache carried three pages of statistics in his hip pocket. It was data that he found on the Internet, downloaded on his home computer and printed out so he could bring it with him to the store.

“That one has picture in picture?” he asked, pointing while he read from the paper.

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Cole, flipping through laminated cards with its specifications and price, just under $2,000.

The department store would let him borrow the money for several months without charging interest.

Gamache said he wasn’t buying because of new formats. His TV was just getting old. The grandkids might enjoy it. And a friend had one of them.

Together, he and the friend watched “Pearl Harbor” and “The Big Lebowski” on his TV the weekend before.

“It felt like you were there,” Gamache said.


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