Perhaps soap opera addicts feel at least a small pang of guilt when they're sprawled out on the couch on a Monday afternoon, staring at a big-screen plasma as a couple of dimly lit (and dimly brained) hotties go at it.
But keep in mind: The poor lighting that makes everything look a little cheap also means they're watching one of television's most environmentally friendly genres of programming.
It turns out that when screened on certain large televisions, different television genres can use up widely varying amounts of electricity. Crude animation a la "South Park" - bright colors against a light backdrop - requires a lot of energy to render, for example.
The difference in electricity consumed by different types of shows can be as high as 40 percent to two-fold, according to Larry Weber, who helped to invent and commercialize plasma televisions.
That difference is enhanced in new television technologies, such as liquid crystal display and plasma, rendering old systems of measuring television energy wildly out of date and making it tricky to compare energy use across newer-model televisions.
Boring TV to the Rescue
Now a new program self-dubbed "the world's most boring television show" promises to create a more accurate and standard tool for measuring television energy - and one that could help convince manufacturers to produce higher-efficiency televisions.
"We're looking at getting a realistic measure in the real world of how electrically efficient the product is," said Dennis Brougham, a spokesperson for the International Electrotechnical Commission, a Geneva-based electronic-standards organization that announced the tool last week. An IEC group spent the last year cutting together the 10-minute show, made up of around 180 clips from different genres, which not only spans different tastes but, more importantly, spans different amounts of energy consumption.
The group is hunkered down in Colmar, France, this week to further debate and tweak the use of the tool, which will be handed out to government agencies, manufacturers, environmentalists, consumer groups and others.
More Than A.D.D. TV
The new attention-deficit-disorder TV program may sound cute, but as an energy measurement tool it's part of increasingly high stakes.
Household energy use accounts for around one-fourth of all energy consumption in the United States and $200 billion per year from consumers, according to the Government Accountability Office. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program offers certification stickers to products that meet certain efficiency standards, and a sharp increase in both the cost of energy and concern for the environment promises to send consumers on green buying binges in search of certified low-energy products.
That means that environmentalists, consumer advocates and industry groups are increasingly paying close attention to the methods that regulatory bodies allow industry to employ in measuring and reporting energy use.
The EPA, for example, changed the methods car manufacturers are required to use in measuring fuel efficiency - beginning with 2008 model cars - after consumer groups argued that EPA estimates showed far higher and more favorable miles-per-gallon figures than real driving conditions allowed.
In 2005, the environmental policy nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council warned in a report that television energy use in the United States was set to increase 50 percent - from 46 billion kilowatts per hour to 70 billion kilowatts per hour - between 2004 and 2009. That's because Americans are purchasing more big-screen, high-definition televisions and turning the television on for more hours, the report said. The NRDC asked the IEC to come up with the updated tool for measuring television energy use and asked Energy Star to create new standards for television efficiency.
And, just recently, the GAO issued a report that said Energy Star does a poor job in providing standards for measuring household appliances, in part because its system measures some products - including televisions - only when they're turned off, missing a huge amount of energy consumption. According to the report, 90 percent of television energy use comes when the television is turned on.
Energy Star Gets Tough(er)
Energy Star is working now to incorporate the new IEC tools into a program that measures total energy consumption of televisions, according to Energy Star product manager Katharine Kaplan.
To be implemented in September 2008, Kaplan said the new program could have a large impact: While nearly 100 percent of televisions on the market now earn Energy Star stickers, that would drop to just 25 percent under proposed new standards. Kaplan expects manufacturers to work between now and September to lower energy consumption in their models so as not to lose the sticker.
"This is a very significant development," said Weber, who is part of the IEC standards group that came up with the new TV measurement tool. "What'll happen now is that all of the energy manufacturers will have a way to measure power and will know what the standard is. Then, when they make a new design, they'll all be trying to make it better than their competitors', and that's going to make energy go down quite significantly."
It may seem there's an unlikely amount of drama unfolding these days in the world of television efficiency standards, but it's still probably not enough to rival the steamy backstabbing and scheming of soap operas' most notorious couplings.