Most people don't like watching TV in the dark. The problem is, flat-panel TVs tend to reflect light in the room. Even if you have a matte-screen LCD, light bouncing off the screen is going to diminish picture quality in one way or another.
This how-to guide has some obvious and some not-so-obvious tricks and tips to help you make sure that no matter what lighting you have in your room, you're still getting the best picture quality.
Most flat-panel TVs these days have glossy screens, which act like a mirror for any light source in a room (from windows to lamps). If you have a glossy screen TV, and you're reading this guide, chances are you know exactly what I'm talking about.
What's interesting is that even though matte-screen LCDs don't have the mirrorlike reflections, ambient light in a room still adversely affects them. This is because instead of bouncing the light right back at you, a matte-screen LCD spreads that light energy across the whole screen. Reflections are lessened, but black level goes up (lightens).
The easiest fix
Turn off the lights, right? Well, sort of. There's a reason people like to leave the lights on when they're watching TV: eye fatigue. Many people feel soreness in their eyes when watching TV in the dark. Whether you're conscious of this or not, leaving the lights on can create a more relaxing viewing environment. Unless, of course, that light reflects off the TV.
It may seem like a roundabout way of solving anything, but you can change the TV to minimize eye fatigue. If this works, you won't need to leave the lights on. No lights, no reflections. Problem solved.
If you have an LCD TV, this is easy. Most LCDs have a backlight control. Check your user menus: this control is likely set near or at maximum. This is really bright. Turn this down at night for a more relaxing image and better black levels. Your contrast ratio won't change.
In theory you could turn down the contrast control on a plasma to reduce its brightness, but that's not advisable. With plasmas, reducing the light output does reduce the contrast ratio.
Another option is to get a larger television, or sit closer. The reason why people get eye fatigue is that their irises are wide open because of the dark room. A small area of light (the TV) is way brighter than the surrounding environment, exactly like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes. With a larger TV, there's more light and your iris will close down. That's the theory, anyway. It's not like I'm advising you to get a massive TV to solve a reflection problem. Well, not entirely. It would be a pretty awesome TV, though, right? And what an excuse for the spouse!
Watching TV during the day is an entirely different problem. You can't turn off the sun (though if you can, I, for one, look forward to your rule of darkness, future overlord), so we'll get to ways to solve that problem in a moment.
If you can't or don't want to adjust the TV, or buy a 100-inch plasma screen, there are plenty of other options. Moving a lamp behind the TV will raise the ambient light in the room (meaning less eye fatigue) without causing any reflections.
The techie name for this is a bias light. You want this light to be as color-neutral as possible, as any color in the lamp is going to subtract that color from the TV. A red light will make the TV look less red, for example.
You can make your own, or you can buy one from a company like CinemaQuest. For what it's worth, bias lights are used in most professional environments where people sit in dark rooms and look at screens all day. Movie and TV editors, for example, or <insert>joke about bloggers here</insert>.
Another option is to mount the screen on a wall mount that pivots, so when you're getting the reflection, you can move the TV slight so the reflection is reflected elsewhere (and you can't see it). Several companies make wall mounts that do this. A few things to keep in mind. Most LCDs look significantly worse off-axis (viewed off center). If you pivot these, you'll be viewing them off axis, and picture quality will suffer. Check out my article on Why LED does not mean a better picture for more info. Also, make sure you mount the TV low enough that it doesn't cause neck strain. For that, check out How high should I put my TV?
The other option is just moving the lamp so it doesn't reflect off the screen. I'm gonna guess you've already tried that, so we'll keep going.
A more elaborate step is to make the lighting in your room more controllable. Companies like Lutron have a variety of lighting control systems that let you have different "zones" and "scenes." So the light at the back of the room that reflects off the TV can be a specific zone that's off when you're in the "TV watching" scene. Then it's on when you're in the "party" scene, or the "where's the remote" scene. You can also tie in remote-controlled sun shades. Speaking of that...
If you have a lot of windows, you're fighting the sun, and your TV isn't going to win. Sure, today's brightest LCDs are plenty watchable in many bright environments, but you aren't getting the best picture quality with that much light in the room.
I have a different issue. I use a projector for my sole "TV," and any amount of light washes out the screen. I picked up some blackout curtains from Lowe's for about $70 for a pair of big windows. They even look nice. Though as you can guess, I probably have a different idea of what's "nice" than most people.
Motorized sun screens, either inside or out, are a huge help in more ways than one. I live in Southern California, and the west side of my house bakes all afternoon long. I put in some exterior sun shades and, not to sound like a testimonial, my house is now way cooler (temperature-wise, I mean, though come to think of it...) It's also darker inside with far less direct light (and thus, fewer reflections).
Many companies make sun shades, so a trip to your local Lowe's or Home Depot will surely be of more use than what I can add.
I will say this, though: if you get the motorized variety, check whether they can be tied into a home automation system. Just in case you want to add one of those down the road (or tie it in with a lighting system now).
You can hire a ninja to stand between your TV and the offending light. Just kidding. That's ridiculous. You wouldn't be able to see him.
Editors' Note December 12, 2011: This article was originally published on 8/29/2011 and since updated to include more on wall mounting and off-axis viewing.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables, LED LCD vs. plasma, Active vs Passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.