Requiem for a Busted Television

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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It looks like the McSuderman household will soon be in the market for a new television.

This is not a decision we undertake lightly. As my husband will testify, as long as something is working, you have to pry my white-knuckled fingers off the money to replace it.

Unfortunately, our lovely television, the first one I bought myself out of money I myself had earned, seems to be on the fritz. The first time it happened, we had the repairmen out. Just getting them to drop by cost a sizeable sum. They fiddled with it, and said that these problems were common with our model of television. For three times the cost of their friendly visit, they would take it into the shop and try to fix it, but with no guarantees that they could -- or that it would keep working once they'd repaired it. They informed us that once this problem has developed, it keeps developing, so to speak.

Fortunately, while they were fiddling with it, the television spontaneously healed itself. We declined to send it to the shop, and hoped it would stay fixed. Eventually we realized that the problem occurred when you turned it off, so we just left it on, turning it to the music channel when it wasn't in use. But alas, last week, someone seems to have hit the power button, and now all we have is a sadly blinking light. We have tried, and failed, with all the tricks that seemed to work before -- a process that has given me new insight into how primitive superstitions develop. ("It always works when I turn it on using THIS remote." "Have you tried standing on one leg? You were standing on one leg when it turned on last time.")

I'm more than mildly annoyed that it apparently does not pay to repair a large, expensive piece of electronic equipment: Getting a repairman out and sending it to the shop would be about 60 percent of the cost of a new and improved replacement. I'd still pursue that option, too, if the repairmen hadn't been so negative about the odds that the fix would actually stay fixed.

But of course, the financial calculation isn't quite that simple. Because if you're going to replace the television, shouldn't you think about getting a bigger one? Even if that would make a new television cost a good bit more than twice the cost of repair? After all, you're hoping to have this television for a long time. When I bought this television, lo those many years ago, it was one of the larger ones on the market. It's hardly petite now, but it is solidly in what they call the "mid-range."

When I was in IT consulting, I used to call this problem "futuritis." The temptation is to make something "future ready" when you go to replace it -- to get something better than what you're replacing, so it will last longer. Occasionally this would happen in the middle of a project, if it was delayed long enough. Usually those projects developed terminal futuritis and had to be put down.

At least for television owners, this cycle should eventually end. Screens will probably top out somewhere not far north of 100 inches -- the current average size is about 37 inches, up from 22 inches in 1997 -- because most people won't have room to put them, or the ability to carry them -- this is why there aren't a lot of 150-inch dining room tables. But until it does, the "repair or replace" calculations will be very complicated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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