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How Small a TV Can You Watch?

By RD Heldenfels Published: November 2, 2005

About 50 years ago, a TV critic imagined a world without the small TV screens of his day; instead, he envisioned a future of TV screens that could be adjusted from a few feet across to the size of an entire wall.

Well, we've seen the big home screen become increasingly common through the so-called home theater systems. But the little TV screens have not gone away. In fact, they seem to be having a rebirth.

Today I watched a little bit of ''Threshold'' on CBS's Web site, one of the many recent examples of broadcasters making video feeds available of their shows. The picture was great. It was also about 5 inches long and 3 1/2 inches high.

There's been a lot of talk, too, about video feeds to iPods and other devices -- which sound like the video equivalent of that wrist TV that Dick Tracy used to wear. (Yes, I am old enough to remember when it was a wrist radio. Let's move on.)

I suppose the convenience will attract some. And ''Threshold'' was perfectly watchable in its small size; of course, I was sitting less than two feet from the screen, and I did remind myself once that I'm getting my eyes checked next week.

But if TV has to factor in the small screen again, how will that affect the way TV is made? It has before. The small screens of TV's infancy encouraged producers to use a lot of closeups -- of faces especially, but also of objects. When you look even at TV dramas from the 1970s on DVD, you'll see that they often look cheaply made -- the furnishing of sets almost sketched in, as if the producers assumed audiences would not care about the details, if they could see them at all.

The increase in the size of TV sets and the quality of pictures has encouraged a more cinematic approach, the use of the widescreen format, an embrace of a visual detail that used to be unthinkable. Now we can see everything, and we're comparing the TV show to a big-budget movie or a premium-cable production on a neighboring channel, so we know things should look good.

But how much will that matter on the tiny screens? And how long will it be before we're back seeing extreme closeups so that the guy watching on his computer or iPod will be able to see what's going on?

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