• Along with pristine pictures and high-quality sound, flat-screen televisions offer design flexibility and a stylish modern look, opening up placement opportunities that didn’t exist before.

    Credit: Courtesy Brantley Photography

    Along with pristine pictures and high-quality sound, flat-screen televisions offer design flexibility and a stylish modern look, opening up placement opportunities that didn’t exist before.

Lawmakers and television-industry leaders are still squabbling over the turn-off date for analog TV that will officially usher in the high-definition age, but most custom electronics installation specialists are designing A/V systems as if the HDTV transition were yesterday's news.

As recently as March, at the annual HDTV Summit in Washington, D.C., members of Congress proposed turning off the switch on analog TV at the end of this year, ahead of even the late-2006 timeframe originally proposed in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which would allow the FCC to auction off the analog TV spectrum and stuff the proceeds into government coffers.

But with household penetration of digital TV at just 16 percent, and the cable, broadcast, and consumer electronics industries at odds over transition procedures and regulations, it could still be several years before TV broadcasts are exclusively digital.

A major hurdle involves how many local broadcast channels cable providers will have to deliver to subscribers. In the analog world, cable providers must offer local broadcast channels in their basic TV package. In the digital world, four or five digital channels can fit in the space required by one high-definition channel, and broadcasters expect to use those multiple streams for commercial gain during non-prime-time programming. Cable companies argue they shouldn't have to carry multiple streams of broadcasters' channels at the expense of their own premium channels.

But while those issues continue to be hashed over, digital TV—led by the superior HDTV format—continues to plow forward. Most network broadcasters now simulcast analog and digital TV and the majority of prime-time programming is available in high-definition. Cable networks, including HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Discovery, Starz, ESPN, and others, have dedicated high-definition channels that run HD programming throughout the day.

screen savers

Retail pricing is more attractive than it has ever been. Consumers can snag a 52-inch rear-projection HDTV monitor for $1,300; 60-inch plasma TVs have dropped to $6,000 or less. Consumers looking today for a big-screen TV would be hard-pressed to find an analog model. For the first time, in 2005, the number of home theater–grade digital TVs sold at retail is expected to exceed sales of analog TVs. In short, the cutoff date for analog TV may not be set in stone, but consumers are transitioning on their own terms. And luxury-home owners are leading the way.

  • Clients' growing appetite for flat panel TVs in multiple locations presents numerous challenges to installation.

    Credit: Courtesy Brantley Photography

    Clients' growing appetite for flat panel TVs in multiple locations presents numerous challenges to installation.

“I can't think of the last TV over 30 inches that we've sold that wasn't high-definition,” says Robert Ruderman, president and owner of the installation firm Harmony Home Systems, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. His upscale clients do whatever's required to pull in the pristine signals. That includes locating spots for satellite receivers and cable boxes and making space for unsightly '50s-era antennas to catch over-the-air broadcasts.

But it's not just the push for better pictures and sound that's driving sales of HDTV displays, Ruderman says. Homeowners are drawn to the stylish look, the flexibility, and the status statement that a flat TV provides. In fact, the lust for flat TVs, which are primarily digital, accounts for as much, or more, of the interest in digital TV as the pristine pictures and enveloping sound coming through them.

TVs measuring 3 or 4 inches thick are opening up placement opportunities hitherto unknown, including above fireplaces and in ktichens and game rooms. That means builders and installers must anticipate homeowners' needs early on to get the required wiring installed before walls go up.

“A lot of builders in our area are making sure wiring is in place,” Ruderman says, “but we always tell them to make sure there's enough. The cost of running additional cable in the building stage is so negligible that it doesn't make sense not to do a lot of it,” he says.

That can include half a dozen runs of RG6 coaxial cable to multiple satellite dish locations (determined by line of sight to satellites) and then to all the locations that will have primary TVs. He prescribes three or four more coax runs for the distribution hub so they can feed satellite TV, TiVo-like recorders, and cable sources to the TVs throughout the house.

wall-to-wall coverage

The desire to have flat panel TVs in locations where TV hasn't gone before is presenting installation challenges to electronics firms. Because of the placement opportunities in narrow spaces, Ruderman now finds himself installing plasma TVs in the ceilings of master bedrooms, using specialized lifts to motor the TV from a supine position above the ceiling down to a perpendicular angle for viewing. That location requires not only power and cable runs to the ceiling but additional support as well. “We work with the builder to be sure there's enough framing with plywood attached to trusses,” he says.

Scott Jordan, system consultant for Electronic Design Group in Piscataway, N.J., says his firm takes framing support to the max for flat-panel TVs. “We sandwich wood pieces between two studs and bolt them in to support the weight of the plasma,” he says. His company's rule of thumb is that the frame for a TV that hangs on the wall should be able to support five times the weight of the TV.

  • Credit: Courtesy Brantley Photography

At several inches deep, plasma and LCD monitors are ideal for positioning over a fireplace, eliminating two quandaries designers have wrestled with for years: how to hide a massive big-screen TV when it wasn't being viewed, and how to position both the TV and fireplace in the line of sight from the living room sofa.

But when the TV mounts above the fireplace, it changes how electronics installers have to wire the systems. “It's not like in the old days, when we'd hide a tube TV and equipment in the armoire,” says Jordan. Today's installers have to find remote locations for satellite receivers, DVD players, and sometimes the TV circuitry, too. Often the flat-panel screen is just a monitor with the tuner, decoder, and connectors located in a separate component.

“If we're doing a plasma over the fireplace,” Jordan says, “most of the equipment isn't local. We have to distribute the signal from the head-end in the basement or wherever the equipment is located, which could be 15 or 25 feet away.” The good news for installers is a plasma monitor is easier to wire than a full-blown TV but the long wire runs for the outboard parts make for a more expensive installation.

Jordan, too, reinforces the need for multiple cable runs to all locations that could house a TV. That includes the attic, where an off-air antenna might be located for local HD broadcast signals. He suggests power to the attic as well, in case a rotor is required to turn the antenna to find different stations.

“The advent of flat-panel TV has been an interior designer's dream because it's made electronics more attractive,” Jordan says. “But we're left with the job of finding a home for the other gear.”

Rebecca Day specializes in writing about home electronics. She can be reached at customhomerd@aol.com. A version of this article originally appeared in residential architect's sister publication CUSTOM HOME.