From Howdy Doody to HDTV

COMMENTARY

THE Harveys on the second floor got theirs first, an ornate wooden box like the old radio consoles, with a miniature screen where the dial used to be. The kids crowded around it, but I was so little I could barely see. Then ours arrived, a squat little Admiral, and new reigning monarch of the living room. I had no memory of the recent war. But as I sat entranced by the Lone Ranger and Howdy Doody - kids need no instruction in television, a clue surely to its eventual course - I felt at some intuitive level the euphoria in the land. Science was rewarding the nation's hardships with a consumer cornucopia that this box was bringing into our very own living room.

The magazine ads of the day reflected this innocent infatuation. Mom beaming at her Maytag washer. Dad piloting his new sedan. A spokesman for General Electric captured perfectly the boyish mood when he declared each week, ``Progress is our most important product.''

Now comes a new form of television. Called ``high-definition TV'' (HDTV), it will - promoters say - provide a clarity of image before unseen. Members of Congress are talking as though the fate of America hinges upon it. ``One of the most important inventions of the 20th century,'' declared Rep. Don Ritter of Pennsylvania.

Thirty years ago, there would have been excitement throughout the land. But the public response so far has been a big shrug. We are back at the hotel where the honeymoon began. Same romantic bistros. Same room. But the feeling just isn't there.

Debate has focused on whether the government should pay to develop HDTV. That's almost beside the point. Whether as taxpayers or consumers, the same people will pay anyway (through prices for existing TVs, and other electronic products). The real question is why the nation should spend billions to develop these things at all.

There has been talk about defense uses and the like. But the New York Times came closer to the truth when it called HDTV ``a breakthrough technology that could require every household to buy a new television set.'' No small purchase, either, at $2,500 to $3,000 to start, not including the extra set for the rec room, or VCRs.

The reason this nation can't end poverty is that it constantly reinvents it. HDTV is just the latest example. The moment the new sets hit the stores, millions of people who the night before were perfectly happy with their 25-inch remote-control color set will feel $2,500 poorer. The truly poor will feel still deeper in the hole.

Twenty-five hundred dollars spent on a TV set is that much not saved for college, or for a down payment on a house. So we can expect more Time magazine covers bewailing how these are increasingly out of reach. Americans will borrow to buy the new TVs, at a time when the nation desperately needs to save.

I have been trying hard to think of something America needs less than more-expensive television sets. Crack machines in high school cafeterias is about the best I can do. Let's forgo the obvious targets, such as Saturday Kidvid or Morton Downey Jr., and talk about worthy shows like McNeil/Lehrer.

Is America's big problem that it can't see their faces well enough? Or is it that we don't spend enough time reading and thinking about, and acting upon, the kinds of problems they bring to our attention?

The dilemma here is pretty basic. Economics is coming unhinged from the well-being it is supposed to promote. Nobody needs high-definition television. But the prevailing concept of economics requires that people buy them - or something equally superfluous - in order to keep the economy growing.

The American press has been gloating as communism in the Soviet Union and China meets its inevitable demise. But before we congratulate ourselves too much, we might ask whether some economic notions of our own are coming to an end as well. This is hard to accept, but HDTV actually might help. It will be a Saturday morning. The kids have watched four hours of commercials on HDTV, tantalizingly real. They are yammering for Fruit Loops and Big Macs and computer toys that cost $199.99, plus accessories.

And at that moment, Mom or Dad understands why the honeymoon is over, and the old magic just isn't there.

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