KINGSPORT - As U.S. television heads toward digital widescreens, a Mediterranean-style console color television from the 1970s or an iconic 1950s black-and-white set in a mahogany case may be obsolete.
Although television repair shops are far from obsolete, three repair shops in the Kingsport area could be considered part of an endangered species.
They are Colonial Heights Radio & TV owned by Robert Forrester, TV & Radio Clinic owned by Gary Darnell and A&G Electronics TV & VCR Repair owned by Jeff Gray.
The Electron Online January 2007 edition reports that the National Electronics Service Dealers Association, based in Fort Worth, estimates the United States has about 7,000 electronics service dealers, down from about 20,000 in the mid-1980s.
Billy Darnell, founder of the TV & Radio Clinic and father of Gary Darnell, said a former picture tube supplier and refurbisher in Knoxville said that area has lost a dozen or more TV repair shops in recent years.
Gray of A&G said he's bought out three TV shops in his nearly 25 years in business.
Billy Darnell said he remembers a lot of shops that have closed and television technicians who have died.
The reason is he tried to get jobs at the shops before he started his own in 1967 and employed or competed against many of the technicians.
A graduate of the DeVry Technical Institute of Chicago, the elder Darnell retired because of health reasons in 1999 but still comes to the shop he turned over to his son. Gary Darnell.
The younger Darnell, another technician and a helper work there.
"I just more or less come down to occupy my mind," Billy Darnell said.
The younger Darnell learned the technician work and business from his father, and he also took night school classes and attends the "factory school" classes to retain an authorized factory service center designation.
Those classes address plasma and LCD widescreens and digital TV, including high-definition widescreen. The federal government has set Feb. 17, 2009, as the deadline for full-power TV stations to end analog broadcasts.
But the area TV repair shops are staffed, for the most part, by folks who well remember tube-type and black-and-white sets of yesteryear.
"None of the younger guys are getting into this field," Gary Darnell said. "I'm generally the youngest one in the class, and I'm 46."
However, demand on the remaining shops is increasing, he said. Darnell said many first-time visitors to the shop say they didn't realize such shops still existed.
"There's been so many shops closed down in the last three or four years it's made work, people bringing in sets from Knoxville and Kentucky," Gary Darnell said, to which his father added in the early days black-and-white televisions and radios were the bread and butter of the business.
"It was an entirely different world," Billy Darnell said, adding he got rid of most of the old vacuum tubes about 15 years ago but wishes he had kept some of them, especially the old radio tubes. However, he did keep a collection of old tube-type radios, some going back to the 1920s, including a 1927 Hammond, as well as an operating 1948 General Electric TV set.
The elder Darnell bought that set about 30 years ago during a visit to Washington, D.C. It has a 10-inch screen and receives channels 2 through 13, being made just after the federal government discontinued TV channel 1 for use by the Navy and others.
Forrester at the Colonial Heights repair shop has been in business for 30 years, having opened in 1977.
Forrester received electronics training in the U.S. Army and worked at North Electric in Gray after his military service.
A friend, Greg Chambers, was laid off and started the repair shop. Forrester worked there part-time briefly until he quit North Electric when the business grew enough so he could work there full time.
Forrester, 58, first went to the shop to observe while recuperating from a motorcycle wreck and unable to work at North Electric.
Chambers is semi-retired and out of the country, but Forrester said Chambers plans to return to the United States and that he hopes his friend will rejoin the business, at least part-time.
Another employee also recently left, going into semi-retirement.
"New technicians? You are probably going to find a dinosaur out here walking around before you find someone that studied it (TV and electronics repair)," Forrester said.
"It's stayed consistent," Forrester said. "We hung on as the satellite shops around Kingsport collapsed."
Today, he gets work from as far away as Big Stone Gap and Pennington Gap in Virginia.
In the Army, he learned how to work on tube-type and transistor electronics, the latter a predecessor to today's integrated circuits that pervade modern TVs and other electronics.
From the 1970s into the 1990s, the business sold and serviced televisions.
"We were the first sales and service that ever made it in Kingsport," Forrester said of RCA and Zenith sales, adding that the business then serviced what it sold and provided loaner sets, as well as providing general TV repair.
The TV & Radio Clinic also sold new Quasar and Zenith televisions for a time, the Darnells said.
"We sold a boat load of black-and-white sets. Even console black-and-white sets were popular," Forrester said.
Comparing the pending switch from analog television to digital, the latter of which includes high-definition, widescreen format, he said many by the 1970s had embraced the "new" color sets but others complained color "hurt their eyes."
"I really do not remember the last time I saw a black-and-white come in," Forrester said.
As for tube sets, color or black and white, Forrester sees none of them.
"If anyone calls me about a tube television set, I do everything I can do to discourage them."
However, he still works on some tube-type audio equipment, mostly things like guitar amplifiers.
Gray of A&G has been in the business 24 years and focuses mostly on in-home service. Darnell said his business also does in-home service on larger sets, while Forrester said he doesn't do much in-home work.
A&G has six vehicles with lift gates to move the large sets.
"As soon as I got out of the Navy, I started it in 1983," said Gray, who prior to his Navy training learned about the old tube-type sets from an uncle who oversaw TV repair for area Sears stores. He also went through a technical school in Washington, D.C., after completing his Navy service.
As a child, he recalled taking apart a burned-out blender and rewiring it.
The in-home service focuses on hard-to-move big-screen televisions. Some can be fixed in the home, while others require a trip to the shop for repair.
Customers bring smaller sets into the shop. Gray, who has one other employee, also works on camcorders and other electronics. Over the years, he's worked on turntables, video equipment and tape recorders.
"In-house is what pays the bills. We go out and try to help the people," Gray said. "We're a service business. We're out here to serve people as best as we can."
Gray said the business has done service calls as far away as Duffield in Virginia and Morristown in Tennessee.
Gray, 45, has been in the Kingsport area for 12 years. Before that, he operated in Johnson City on Roan Street.
The three Kingsport area TV repair businesses remain independent, but the owners and technicians are acquainted with one another and sometimes share manuals, parts and expertise.
"It was competitive," Forrester said. But as the number of shops dwindled and the technicians got to know each other through training sessions, he said they sometimes will help each other out with expertise or parts.
"We help each other as much as we can. There are so few of us around," Forrester said.
If one shop has a part, schematic or bit of experience that can help another get a set back to a customer, they usually will work together.
"We've got good relations with Robert and others out there," Gary Darnell said.
Gray said he's not out to take customers away from other repair services.
"We all work together. He helps me. I help him, and he helps me," Gray said. "We're not out to cut each other's throats."
The repair shops also have some similar operating practices and experiences. For instance:
• All have a minimum charge of $25 plus tax to look at a TV set, more depending on the size and type. If the customer decides to have the set repaired, that up-front amount is credited toward the total cost of fixing the set.
• Most VCRs and lower-priced DVD players, as well as lower-priced TVs, are not cost effective to repair, given the price of replacements vs. labor and parts.
In some instances, a part or two for an electronic device can exceed the cost of a new one, Gary Darnell said. In general, Gray said sets up to 20 inches often are not economically feasible to fix. Billy Darnell said if a set can be repaired for no more than half its retail selling price, it's worth considering.
• Changing cathode ray picture tubes, once the mainstay of TV repair, is quickly dying out.
"I don't remember the last time I changed a picture tube," Forrester said. Gary Darnell, however, changed a 32-inch Sony cathode ray tube a few weeks ago. The caveat? It was a warranty job. He said some TV makers simply ship a new TV instead of a replacement picture tube.
"Under warranty is the only time we ever do it anymore," Greg Darnell said, to which his father added: "We used to do eight or 10 a week."
Still, the repairmen said they can make cost-effective repairs on many TV sets. Gray said he's had to improvise to repair an integrated circuit a manufacturer no longer supplied, and Forrester said he has to track down problems not mentioned in the technical manuals or classes.
"There's a lot of stuff people are throwing away that could be repaired," Greg Darnell said.