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Are TVs really cheaper than ever? We go back a few decades to see

Beyond the Black Friday deals and disposably cheap TVs, are televisions getting more or less expensive? Let's find out.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read
Geoffrey Morrison

It's an old adage that technology gets better and cheaper every year. But how true is that? There are certainly more inexpensive products every year, but often those less-expensive products perform worse than average. They're just cheaper, but not as "good."

If you look at the best TVs on the market, they're still pretty expensive. But how does that compare to the best offerings from a few years ago? Most people don't remember what they paid for their last TV, never mind a TV from 20 years ago. For that matter, how much did the best TV cost in 1997?

I'm glad you asked.

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2017 baseline

LG  OLED55B7A: $2,300
Price-per-square-inch: $1.78

To start our comparison, let's use the LG B7A OLED. It's nearly identical to the C7 OLED, our current Best TV pick.

The 55-inch has an MSRP of $3,000 for a price-per-inch of about $2.32. However, that's the MSRP. They're currently as low as $1,500 for lack Friday 2017. So in terms of screen area, that's $1.24 per square inch, which is pretty amazing for the TV that has the best performance of the year, and by extension, some of the best performance of a TV ever.

This is in today's dollars because, well, it's today. As we go back in time, I'll use the Bureau of Labor Statistic's inflation calculator and list the prices in today's dollars as well.

2012 (5 years ago)


Panasonic TC-P55VT50: $2,680
PPSI: $2.08

Plasma! Ah the good old days. Well, sort of. Plasma TVs were great, but these are still old TVs. Today's OLEDs are brighter, have better color, have higher resolution, and more. 4K was still on the horizon five years ago, but already creating waves.

The VT50 series was an amazing television for 2012, and not ridiculously expensive: $2,500 for a 55-inch. In today's dollars, that's a fairly close $2,680. And price-per-screen-area is pretty close to today's OLED. OLED's MSRP anyway.

It's a little misleading, though, because plasmas always had a fantastic price-to-performance ratio. The similarly priced LCDs didn't look as good and weren't as well reviewed. The great LCD of 2012 that did look amazing was the slightly larger Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD, which retailed for a brutal $6,000 ($3.91 PPSI). Think about that: you can get a 65-inch OLED today that's larger and HDR/WCG for a fraction of the price of that TV. That's progress.

2007 (10 years ago)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-110FD: $7,046
PPSI: $6.60

The legendary Pioneer Kuro. It is to TVs what the Porsche 959 was to cars: cutting-edge technological brilliance that was too far ahead of its time to last long. Though I assume Pioneer hoped to make Kuros far longer than Porsche planned on making the 959.

This TV was a revelation in contrast ratio and picture quality. When I reviewed it, I called it the "best TV ever." When David reviewed the following year's model, he said "The Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD represents the pinnacle of flat-panel HDTV picture quality."

It was also expensive. $6,000 then, $7,046 in today's dollars. And get this: that was just for the 50-inch, for a PPSI of $6.60. Ouch.

1997 (20 years ago)


Philips/Fujitsu Flat Plasma TV: $22,924
PPSI: $30.45

Sony KV-35XBR48 CRT TV: $3,821
PPSI: $5.83

1997 was the year the first flat-panel TVs really hit the consumer market (Fujitsu having started plasma production in late 1996). This TV was flat. It was the future. It was expensive. It… looked terrible. This was an ugly, ugly TV. 

CRTs of the era, like this Sony, weren't much smaller, diagonally, and offered significantly better picture quality. For $15,000, it wasn't even HD! 852x480 pixels. 

Today you can get 3,840x2,160 pixels, plus more color, contrast, brightness, and way more screen, for less than 5 percent of the cost of this TV when new.

In comparison, the best TVs of the day were CRTs. Scratch that. The only TVs of the day. Rear-projection TVs were capable of a bigger picture, but for the best image, direct-view CRTs ruled. Sony owned this category for most of the last half of the 20th century. How about a Sony KV-35XBR48? $2,500, progressive scan, and despite the name, a massive 37-inch screen. How about them S-video inputs? Plus, it only weighs 200 pounds!

There were perhaps better TVs in 1997, but the internet isn't what it is now.

1954 (63 years ago)


Westinghouse H840CK15: $11,875
PPSI: $110.20 (!)

Let's go way back, to the earliest days of color television. It all seems like ancient history now, but color TV hit the market only a decade or so after black-and-white TV really started to take off (though Farnsworth himself had been working on TV since the '20s). Much like the early days of HD and 4K, there wasn't much content, so adoption was slow. 

Prices quickly dropped, however, mostly because people weren't buying. RCA's CT-100 dropped to $495, or $4,440 in today's money ($21.02 PPSI for the 21-inch TV), not long after launch. By the mid-'60s, when color programming really took off, color TVs were even cheaper. You could even get a massive 23-inch screen for $350 ($2,517). 

And those numbers are even a bit optimistic. The Westinghouse may have had a 15-inch tube, but the viewable area was far less.


Bigger, and eventually cheaper

It's easy to say that TVs get cheaper every year. And as you can see, to an extent, that's absolutely true. More accurately, though, it's that they get cheaper per inch. From $110-per-square-inch in the 1950s to $1.24-per-inch or even less today. More than cheaper, TVs get bigger.

The biggest disruptions come at the lower end of the market, something far harder to track. In the '50s, Westinghouse and RCA were some of the only manufacturers of this new technology. Now there are dozens of companies making TVs. You can get a great TV now for less than $0.50-per-square-inch of screen. That's an old trend, too. As new manufacturing powerhouses come in, they aim for the bottom of the market. They first offer something inexpensive, then later, something inexpensive and good, then eventually something good and expensive. It happened with Japan in the '70s and '80s, it happened with Korea in the '90s and 2000s, and it's happening now with China.

But in general, prices drop, so companies create something new that's exciting. In this case that means bigger, better, and because so many parts are similar, cheaper. All this has happened before and will happen again.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the sameTV resolutions explainedLED LCD vs. OLED and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.