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MEMORY LANE: House call

Tue, 09/30/2008 - 8:15pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer, Englewood, Colo.

As Americans bought up millions of television sets during the early boom years of the medium, an iconic figure sprang to life: the TV repairman. When the living room TV produced only a meek flicker of light or failed to register life at all, the call went out to the local repair specialist, often an independent businessperson who was familiar to the neighborhood. Stewart SchleyArmed with a tube caddy – a wooden tray outfitted with tools, tangles of wire and vacuum tubes – the TV repairman would saunter up the walk, his confident march suggesting promise, hope and certainty that the family could watch that evening’s episode of “Texaco Star Theater” or “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.”

TV repairmen were in high demand because television sets were both expensive and persnickety. Their dependence on vacuum tubes to create electric signals made them vulnerable to sudden failure, and almost always it made more sense, economically, to pay the repairman a fee rather than to replace the hulking set with a new model.

As television sets proliferated after WWII, it seemed the business of in-home TV repair was poised for an expansion. Less than 1 percent of U.S. households had a television set in 1946. By 1954, more than 55.7 percent had one, and by 1962 penetration had rocketed to 90 percent. Today, there is an average of 2.73 TV sets in every home.

You would have thought that meant good things for TV repair specialists. But technology and economics would conspire against them. The twin instigators of demand – vacuum tubes and TV set prices – both faded, rendering the independent TV repairman largely as a quaint memory. As solid-state circuitry replaced tubes on a mass scale, TV sets became far more reliable and repair incidents far less frequent. The price of TV sets, too, eventually became the enemy of the repairman. “We live in a throwaway society,” said Steve Rubstello, a 60-year-old repairman from Fremont, Wash., who recently closed a TV repair shop his father started in 1952. In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he blamed relatively cheap TV sets for reducing his repair orders to three sets a week. In the glory days, he said, nearly every customer would call for a repair about every eight months.

Looking back at the business of TV repair is relevant today because a new crop of repair specialists bears a certain resemblance. In August, the telecommunications giant AT&T announced it would launch an ambitious initiative to offer repair services for personal computers, home entertainment systems and computer networks all across the country. Like the TV repairman before it, the AT&T ConnecTech program offers in-home visits, billed at hourly rates and flat fees. For $849, an AT&T technician or contractor will install a flat-panel, wall-mounted TV set with up to seven surround-sound speakers. Solving a quick networking problem over the phone will cost $69, and the minimum fee for an in-home visit is $179.

ConnecTech poses interesting implications for a telecommunications world that’s populated by more providers than it used to be. Although AT&T clearly plans to make money from its venture into the land of home device repair, it’s also a strategic move that could give AT&T a presence – and a chance to sell video, voice and data services – in homes presently served by rivals like Comcast Corp. or Cox Communications.

Ironically, considering the death knell sounded for the TV repair trade, the AT&T service also testifies to a growing need for help as Americans attempt to sort out the warring relationships between PCs, peripheral devices and a new breed of digital, high-definition TV sets that can perplex consumers with confusing constellations of inputs and connections. Best Buy Inc.’s Geek Squad, the prevailing master of the domain, contributes nearly $2 billion in revenue to the big electronics retailer annually. The logo-decorated Volkswagen Beetles driven by Geek Squad repair technicians as they speed to the rescue of frustrated computer users are modern incarnations of the vans and trucks TV repairmen once guided to the curbside.

If history really does repeat itself, the multi-billion-dollar market now being pursued by Best Buy and AT&T will fade over time, too, as the machines of a new digital media era become more reliable and cheaper to replace. For now, though, the new breed of repair person bears an advanced-era resemblance to a faded figure of television’s past. Here’s hoping they remember to bring along the right tubes.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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