Flat-screen TV is near the top on many Sacramento gift lists

Employee Robert Brown, foreground, helps customer Broc Hervey load a 50-inch Samsung LCD television into his vehicle at the Natomas Best Buy store on Christmas Eve. Hervey, a student at Sacramento State, said he saved for three months to buy the TV.

They’re what people wanted most after computers or cash, the flat-screen TVs nestled this morning beneath Sacramento-area Christmas trees.

Analysts say 2009 was the year when wishes most easily came true, with prices finally breaking the $499 barrier on their relentless way down.

“We narrowed it down to a 40-incher between $400 and $500,” said recent UC Davis grad Brad Brown, roaming Best Buy in Elk Grove in the season’s final shopping hours. It will be his first flat screen, coexisting with student loans.

At higher price points, too, holiday buyers this year could finally stop waiting and just say yes.

“It’s time for one of these,” said retired teacher Lynda Ledbetter of Sacramento, sitting outside Fry’s on the doorstep of Christmas Eve. “It’s his Christmas present.”

This morning her husband, Robert, will open a 46-inch $1,699 LCD flat screen, which he liked for its lower energy usage.

Similar entertainment delights await thousands of capital-area households today. The whoops and shouts signal another mass arrival of fresh technology.

Buyers in the United States have taken home 100 million flat-screen TVs since 2005 – a third of them this year alone, says the Consumer Electronics Association, a Virginia trade group.

Not only do these sleek newcomers take TV watching to a new level, they also will increasingly change how homes are designed and apartment leases are written.

All these new family friends will displace thousands of bulky older TVs. American homes are already packed with an average of 2.8 sets apiece, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

You can’t just throw these old TVs in the trash. In Sacramento, they either have to be put out at the curb for special collection or dropped off at county waste facilities.

For more information on disposal options, visit the California Integrated Waste Management Board Web site at www.ciwmb.ca.gov/ Electronics/.

You can also take old TVs to an e-waste collection drive, an increasingly popular event with sports teams and nonprofit groups.

Increasingly, those hefty remnants of technology-gone- by will be going right out the door, or maybe into the spare bedroom. Britt Beemer, chief executive officer of America’s Research Group in South Carolina, predicts 2010 will be an even bigger year for flat-screen sales.

“We’ll probably sell more of these in the next two years than in the last 10,” he said.

A recent Citibank survey of Californians, indeed, revealed that two-thirds of consumers who put off buying flat-screen TVs this year “for financial reasons” will buy one in 2010.

This explosion of sales is well on its way to eliminating the old-style “entertainment niche” that is a fixture of most post-1960 houses, said Lori McGuire, president of McGuire Research, a Sacramento building industry consulting firm. These are recessed spaces for cabinets and deeper TVs built into the living room – much like those for refrigerators in the kitchen.

“Pulte and other big corporate builders are leaving the niche behind,” she said. It’s now an option. Other builders are downsizing the niche, making it more cabinet-sized to hold a flat-screen TV and accessories such as DVD players and video game consoles.

“Some builders are also eliminating the fireplace as a standard feature,” McGuire said. Why? You guessed it. Eight decades after the Federal Radio Commission issued the first TV station license in Maryland – and 40 years after color television became easily affordable – the 46-inch flat-screen TV is the new family hearth.

Americans now spend an average of four hours and 49 minutes watching television each day, according to New York’s Nielsen Ratings.

Architects and interior designers increasingly say they design furniture, walls and windows in main living areas using a large flat-screen TV as the focal point. Cable outlets in all rooms, along with computer wiring, are also typically standard now in new homes, said McGuire.

For many who get flat screens this morning, the question this afternoon is how to mount it. These new TVs can be placed atop cabinets or mounted to walls with mounts ranging in price from $70 to $250.

Don’t go the wall-mounting route if you rent, said Cory Koehler, a senior executive at the Rental Housing Association of the Sacramento Valley.

“Most rental agreements have a deal where the resident must get prior permission for an alteration, and this qualifies as one,” he said. “An alternative is to buy a nice stand.”

The introduction of ever-larger plasma and LCD televisions has caused energy use to jump in the past decade. Combined with associated devices, such as DVD players, TVs now account for 10 percent of household energy use, according to the California Energy Commission.

As more consumers join this mass-market phenomenon, utilities such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Pacific Gas and Electric say they’ve been successfully pressing manufacturers to make flat-screen TVs more energy-efficient.

Last month, the Energy Commission approved the nation’s first mandatory energy-efficiency standards for televisions, which will take effect in 2011. Three-quarters of the televisions sold in the United States today already comply with the regulations, which won’t affect already-purchased televisions.

SMUD planner Janis Erickson said units manufactured next year will be 45 percent more energy-efficient than those now in many homes. By 2012 they’ll be 60 percent more efficient.

Erickson said today’s LCD models, which are most popular with consumers for their sharper images, use less energy than the plasma models, which are more popular with sports fans for being faster and eliminating blurring.

“They should be pleased with whatever they bought,” she said. “Chances are if they bought in the last year it’s one of the energy-efficient ones.”