Watchman, show us of the night.
And the day. And the "Days of Our Lives." And the NFL. And "The New $25,000 Pyramid." Actually, the $25,000 Pyramid looks a bit like a $12.95 pyramid on the new Sony Watchman, but that doesn't matter. The Sony Watchman is still the Christmas gift of the year, a home toy to rank in wonderment with the video game, the SX-70 camera and, of course, the Sony Walkman, whence the Watchman got its name.
In New York last week, shoppers stampeded Bloomingdale's and bought up the first 1,000 available. Then Sony corporate headquarters in New York was bombarded with angry calls from people who got to Bloomie's after the Watchmen were sold out. We have here the makings of a major rage.
Other companies have made TV sets with screens as small as the Watchman's tiny two-incher. But the selling point of the Watchman is the wallet-thinness of the set itself. A new kind of picture tube makes possible a "flat" TV set only 1.5 inches thick. The set is about the size of a walkie-talkie. You can sit use its pop-out easel to prop it up on your desk, or hold it snugly in one hand and feast your eyes on its bewitching little black-and-white image. True, it's more of a nibble than a feast, but it's tasty just the same.
The Watchman is as cute as E.T., and you don't have to wait in the woodshed for one to come and visit you. What you do have to do is shell out 350 bucks, and even those who are quite prepared to do that may be disappointed for awhile, because a Sony executive says the company won't be able to import nearly as many Watchmen for the holiday buying season as it would like.
It seems the Watchman is such a smash in its native Japan that Sony can only make it available in limited quantities here; reportedly, the sets sell in Tokyo at more than 500 a month. "Several thousand, at the most" will be available in U.S. stores in the next few weeks, says Fred Wahlstrom, manager of corporate communications. He predicts the Watchman's novelty may make it as hotly sought an item as was Sony's original Walkman, the portable stereo tape player, which sold for as much as $700 when there were only a handful to be had, but can be bought for under a hundred bucks now. Sony had hoped to price the Watchman $50 or even $100 lower than the current price, but the scarcity is keeping the cost up for now.
What you get for your money is a TV that can be taken to football games for close-up instant replays, or run off the car battery for the evening news while one is stuck in rush-hour traffic (in Washington you can take in a heap of news just sitting out the nightly bottleneck at Key Bridge). Walking down the street and staring into it is not recommended and not practical, however. You could end up as a hood ornament on a Subaru that way.
On a TV this small, any series is a mini-series. J.R. becomes j.r. Printed phrases like EPA disclaimers, "Use only as directed" and "7 p.m. Central and Mountain" dwindle into flea tracks, and the NBC N's with the peacocks in them just look like so much video acne. But for the true, terminal, irredeemable TV addict, the Watchman is a revelation, even if its picture can be completely hidden by just one commemorative postage stamp. The set runs for 2 1/2 hours on four little 1.5 volt batteries, or can be operated from a wall plug or from larger batteries for longer playing time.
You wouldn't watch "Roots" on it, but that's not what it's for. A viewer who watched an entire "Hill Street Blues" on it last week can say with no hesitancy that it was perfectly satisfying. In fact, TV may be automatically more riveting when you are holding it five inches from your face. Reports that Sony was going to call the set Lookman instead of Watchman are erroneous, Wahlstrom says. There are no reports that it was ever going to be called Peepshow, however appropriate that might be.
Jeff Brooks, director of advertising for Sony, took his early production model Watchman to the New York Giants-Houston Oilers game Sunday. The fans were mighty impressed. They flipped. "I became the master channel switcher for our section," Brooks says. In the stands around him, people would urge Brooks to tune his Watchman to CBS to see how the Redskins-Cowboys game was going. He had brought it to the game to see instant replays and because certain plays were more easily seen from NBC's perspective than from where he was sitting.
"I could have set up a dealership right then and there," says Brooks. "The football fan is really into his football. These people are -- I shouldn't say they're nuts -- but these people are crazy. Whatever they can get to have more excitement and more entertainment from the game, they want."
Partly because it is so small, all stations have to be tuned in on the Walkman with a tuning wheel, the way UHF channels have to be dialed in on older TV sets. The Watchman's pulling power is formidable when it comes to distant TV signals. There is not a single adjustment control for the picture -- no brightness, contrast, vertical hold or any of that. What you get is what you see. The Watchman's built-in speaker is surprisingly tinny, however. "It's not the greatest speaker in the world," Wahlstrom admits, but the set is really designed to be used with an earphone that comes with it. The earphone jack will also accommodate the stereo headphones used with a Sony Walkman.
(Have I died and gone to heaven, or what?)
The big question is, how much smaller will TV sets get, and how quickly? Hitachi reportedly will put a wristwatch TV on the market next year. But Wahlstrom says that when a TV picture gets that small, it becomes pointless. "We have one in the laboratory that we've shown, but no plans to market it now," says Wahlstrom. "It's so small, who'd want to watch it? The technology is there, but we think the Watchman picture is about as small as people would want it to be."
And the even bigger question is, when will flat-screen TV grow the other way, so we can have those video wall screens to hang up like pictures -- you know, the ones that have been just around the corner since about 1955? Sony Chairman Akio Morita has predicted that flat, color wall screens will be available within five years. Sony is working on a color version of the tiny flat screen right now.
A recent visitor to Tokyo reports that the hottest electronic item there is a hand-held, self-contained video recorder and camera for making instant home movies. JVC is marketing such a camera-recorder combination here now; it uses a mini-cassette that has to be transferred to a normal-size VHS cassette for playback in the home. At a recent Japanese electronics show, Sony displayed a new Beta movie camera that uses a full-size Beta cassette, the Beta "camcorder," but nobody at Sony will say when this will be on the market here.
Television screens, meanwhile, are going to grow radically in both directions over the coming years: wall screens for the living room and itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy mini-micro sets for the wrist. Dick Tracy's dream will come true, and then some. The programs will still stink, but when you turn on the little Watchman set and it comes to life in your hand, TV seems just for a second or two magical once more, the way it did 30 years ago when you plugged in the big mahagony box and wondered if it would blow every fuse in the house -- and it sometimes did.
As an interim wonder, the Watchman is another reason it's become harder and harder to hate technology, first-instinct though that may be. Now it is all but impossible to keep oneself in a grumpy funk of technophobia. People are buying home computers right and left (apparently they don't get enough grief from the darned things at the office or the bank) and you can't watch five minutes of TV without getting blurtzed by ads for video games. There's a new one in which pigs are chased by a paint roller; technology marches on.
Could you play chase-the-pigs-with-the-paint-roller on the Watchman? Whether you could or not, somebody will.