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Watching TV on the beach, a lost art

Pretty much since the television set was able to leave the corner of the living room, companies were designing and marketing TVs to be portable. Some added a handle and a battery pack to be brought outdoors. Countless advertisements displayed consumers carrying them on a hike in the woods, in a fishing boat, on a train, and especially, my personal favorite, the beach. In 1958, when Philco introduced the world to the Safari, the self-proclaimed “world’s first portable TV,” one commercial scene depicted a couple laying on a beach towel, with the battery-powered television set between them.


I can imagine how people felt; the possibility of watching their favorite baseball team out in the sand, the joy of watching television leaning back on a recliner combined with the cool summer breeze and the tide at their toes. 50 years into the future and I am attracted to the idea unjaded because this is a dream that came and went, with myself never really enjoying such an experience. When was the last time you saw someone bring a television to the beach?

You would think this technological convenience would have advanced over time. With models getting lighter, and picture quality being debatebly sharper than your own eyesight, one would assume watching TV on the beach would be a fairly easy thing to do in 2016. But really, it’s not a simple task.

And I know what you’re thinking: you have your phone, you can watch the Diamondbacks play at home against the Marlins while you’re on the boardwalk in Mystic Seaport. I have MLB At Bat™ myself, but I can’t lean back in a folding chair, hands free and look at a screen resting in the sand in the luxury of a setting sun. In fact I can barely see what’s on my phone screen when the sun is directly above me.

one would assume watching TV on the beach would be a fairly easy thing to do in 2016

This has both interested and bothered me for a while now, so I went and did a little research looking into what is the best way to watch live TV on the beach. I really only had two qualifications to make this the authentic experience depicted in an ad from an old TIME magazine.

1. This had to be live TV using an antenna, no internet.

2. The product will need to be able to stand upright on a beach towel in the sand on its own.

The results were sparse, considering flat screen TV stands do not hold up well on anything other than a hard flat surface. Most portable televisions are made for inside RVs or on countertops—nothing that can withstand uneasy surfaces like mounds of sand. I also obviously had to filter the search for TVs that use batteries instead of a plug.

The best gadget I could find that wasn’t a laptop with a dongle (bringing a laptop to the beach is a whole different story) was a portable DVD player—the favorite on-flight electronic of 2003—that had a built in tuner and 9-inch display. Made by Azend, it’s not a very pretty thing to look at and kind of washes away any of the magic I imagined in my head because of its likeliness to an old netbook. This in theory solved my problem so I decided to try it out.

The TV stood upright just fine, I’ll give it that. The clamshell body made it easy for me get up and move around to even out my tan. Beyond that it wasn’t a great viewing experience. For one, the antenna was not attached to the product, but instead had a long cable to plug in the side. This would be great for, again, RVs and tabletops so you can aim just the antenna in the best direction, but not so much on the beach. The antenna kept falling over when I put it on my towel, so I had to bury the base of it in the sand to stand upright. Trying to tilt the antenna in a certain direction to get good reception on a specific channel was a task within itself that I eventually gave up on.

Amend Beach TV

As for the LCD display, it was pretty much unviewable. I could barely see anything on the screen during prime beach time (especially with my sunglasses), mostly a silhouette of a character on screen and the reflection of my own face staring back at me. I eventually just made a little tent over my head and the screen to eliminate the unruly rays of the sun but of course I also eliminated my gorgeous view of Jacob Riis Park. My next path would be to build a visor out of cardboard to build around the screen. I guess that’s is why the Philco Safari had a built-in visor.

This added another qualification for my endeavor:

3. Must be able to be watchable in the sun.

So I ended up ruling out virtually everything that had a similar display, including my next-on-the-list flat screens that had a kickstand on the back. I can imagine how frustrating it would be to keep those up on a windy day or with beach-goers disrupting the surrounding area.

This dream may have died simultaneously with the death of cathode ray tube television production. CRTs required that square boxy body to house the components, making it no problem to set it down on a boulder, boat, or a blanket in the sand. This alone is arguably a marketable reason for a CRT in the modern age of consumer electronics.

So, like you, I thought, “why not just use an old CRT?” I have a bunch, since retro is cool. Unfortunately this brings in an extra step and another gadget to tape on top of your set: the converter box. Since June 2009, analog broadcasting has ceased and switched to digital, and TVs made before the initiative are unable to receive the broadcast unless using one of these boxes. Most of them are clunky and, most importantly, need a power outlet to use! But with much Googling, I found a battery powered digital converter kit that requires a few D-batteries to use, which I hope can get you through your daycation. I’ve noticed these battery-powered products are mostly made, and advertised as such, for “emergency” situations.

So why has the appeal of the beach TV faded away? One would think the industry can easily make bases for flat screens that are able to rest nicely on the shore, but I guess the demand isn’t there. Screens have almost become too portable; handhelds are not really meant to be set down. The beach TV falls between the two extremes dominating the market today, the ever-still wall-mounted TV and the pocket-sized smartphone.

Screens have almost become too portable; handhelds are not really meant to be set down.

Over-the-air broadcasting also holds back this dream. You immediately rule out the hundreds of channels available to you via a cable subscription. This obviously limits your choices of entertainment, just like the good ol’ days.

If you’re really dedicated to the cause and don’t want to limit your viewing options, I suppose you can get a gasoline powered inverter, plug in a chromecast, use a MiFi, sit as far away from the water as you can, and you’re golden. But really at that point you’re just tailgating.

My point is, there’s just not an easy way of doing this. I can’t just walk into an electronics store on the way to Hammonasset and pick up everything I need to watch TV on the beach. There is just something so relaxing and desireable to me about the beach TV—an artful, peaceful, and zen broadcast viewing experience that would make VR immersion irrelevant for an evening. But maybe it’s because the beach is the one last place we have to distract us from a screen…

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