When it comes to TV, size matters

Amid space-age buzz about portable ways to watch TV — the latest being news and entertainment programming piped directly to cell phones — I’ve had a few reminders of a key attribute in the exhibition game.

Size matters.

Thanks to new technologies, there are few places where a consumer won’t be able to access video; still, having the ability and yearning to exercise it aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Just as movie theaters sought to differentiate themselves from TV when the latter blossomed in the 1950s, theaters are implementing innovations designed to make them more impressive and unique. Meanwhile, ever-larger TV sets — at ever-lower prices — seek to approximate that experience in the comfort of one’s home.

The common thread is more dazzling pictures on both fronts — and a narrowing gap that blurs lines in terms of how movies are consumed.

This isn’t to suggest that television will shed its second-class citizen status vis-a-vis films. A few years ago I assembled a panel of TV writers and asked how they felt about receiving less respect than their movie brethren do. Comedy scribe and novelist Charlie Hauck summed it up as follows: “Movies are bigger. They win.”

They certainly used to, but that equation is in a state of flux. Recently an acquaintance expressed curiosity about the movie “Sideways.” When I asked why he hadn’t seen it yet, he responded, “It’s a lot of talking, isn’t it? That’s not something I need to see in the theater.”

That’s a peculiar outlook, especially for a quirky film that benefits from being shared with an audience. Yet as over-sized TVs become clearer, flatter and cheaper, home theater systems increasingly offer stay-at-home types a perfectly satisfying option, without the fuss of finding a parking place at Universal CityWalk.

“The home theater experience is getting closer to the theatrical experience,” says Circuit City Stores spokesman Steve Mullen. “Just add the popcorn.”

The price of flat-panel TVs is down roughly 25% since last year and expected to continue declining, rendering home viewing more enticing as millions acquire them and, not incidentally, feel compelled to justify that still-hefty investment.

How well these newfangled TVs sell through the holiday season will be closely watched, though the target of broadcasters transitioning from analog to digital signals two years from now still looks pretty pie in the sky. NBC has announced plans to offer an all-high-definition latenight lineup next year, meaning college kids watching Conan O’Brien will have access to clearer pictures, at least until they knock off that six-pack of Bud.

Even a 60-inch rear-projection TV in the living room, however, is no match for Imax, the Spruce Goose-sized theater screens that have helped keep “The Polar Express” chugging along in sparkling 3-D through the holidays.

Having seen that film and a few others in the Imax format — including director James Cameron’s latest underwater documentary, “Aliens of the Deep,” whose visuals mostly compensate for the leaden narration — it’s hard not to marvel at the towering images, transforming even the best-looking actor’s pores into manhole covers. The sheer sense of motion and near-vertigo create an experience that often feels more akin to a theme-park ride than a movie.

Not everything, obviously, lends itself to such treatment, but it’s a good bet the foot-dragger who’ll wait on “Sideways” might feel differently about “Spider-Man 2,” especially when you can see previously obscured blemishes on Tobey Maguire’s nose that prove strangely humanizing.

Ultimately, the ongoing game of can-you-top-this will only benefit consumers, as screens of all kinds endeavor to grow bigger, clearer, more eye-popping.

With those kinds of options, I’ll happily use my cell phone to talk about whether to rent a DVD or schlep to the multiplex, but at this point, I can’t imagine watching “Ocean’s Twelve” on that dinky little screen. For now, anyway, it’s preferable that movies stay larger than life, or at least as large as the living room will allow.

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No entity has done more to muddy TV-theatrical boundaries than HBO, which continues to juggle the formula by producing movies first and then deciding whether to opt for theatrical release or premiere them on pay cable.

Mostly character-driven dramas and documentaries, these films straddle the line between premium channel and arthouse. In that respect, HBO’s “It’s not TV” slogan enables stars to feel better about working for HBO, bolstering its cachet to attract marquee talent and thus providing latitude to actually not be TV when it chooses.

Confused yet? Hey, just because a channel is available in “high definition” doesn’t mean it’s easily defined.

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