If you're hosting a Super Bowl 50 party on February 7 when the Carolina Panthers take on the Denver Broncos at Levi's Stadium, you're probably spending more time thinking about what beer goes best with wings than about how to fiddle with your TV's menus. But make some adjustments to the settings and you can probably get a much better view of the big game. Fortunately, you don't have to be a TV guru to get your set running like a champ in time for kickoff.

Things have changed when it come to television settings. It used to be that when you brought a TV home, the settings would all be cranked too high—to "torch mode" in industry speak. Manufacturers would turn up the set's brightness controls and oversaturate the colors to make the picture pop in the harsh lighting of a typical retail sales floor.

These days, TVs offer a first-time setup option that lets us select a "home" mode instead of a "retail" or "store" setting. But we now have the opposite problem: Because manufacturers try to hit Energy Star energy-use guidelines, the out-of-box home settings might make the TV too dim or undersaturate the colors.

You could pay a few hundred dollars for a professional TV calibration, but it's easy to do it yourself. And the adjustments you make for Super Bowl Sunday will probably work throughout the year, for all kinds of programming. Note: If you're nervous about screwing up the settings just before for the big game, don't worry. Nearly all TVs have a reset button that will return the set to its default factory settings if the turf starts looking more blue than green.

Here's the TV calibration plan.

1. Try a factory picture preset. All TVs now come with a menu of picture modes with names such as "vivid," "natural," "sports," or "cinema." When you select one of these modes, the brightness, contrast, and sharpness are automatically adjusted to preset values optimized for different viewing environments. Although it might seem odd, don't choose the "sports" mode for watching sports. Also stay away from the "vivid" and "dynamic" modes, which tend to dramatically boost contrast and sharpness and lower brightness to less-than-optimal levels. We've found that modes with names like "natural," "cinema," "movie," and "pro" generally provide the best results.

2. Now tweak the settings individually. With us so far? Once you've selected one of those preset modes, many TVs let you tweak the picture's appearance further. On other sets, if you try to change the settings, your picture mode will automatically change to a "custom" or "preference" mode. Either way, your procedure for the next part of the TV calibration will be the same.

  • Brightness level: This is also called black level, and it's critical to top picture quality. Ideally, a TV should be able to display deep blacks without losing the detail within the darkest areas. Freeze-frame a nighttime scene, such as one from a Batman or a vampire movie. Turn the brightness/black level up until you can see the details in the image's darkest areas. Then turn it down so the black gets as black as possible without obscuring the details in the dark areas. With LCD sets, you won't get as deep a black as you can with plasma or OLED TVs.
  • Contrast: Also called white level, contrast affects how bright the picture looks. Find an image with lots of white—say, a wedding gown, a man's dress shirt, or a sky full of puffy white clouds. Lower the contrast until you can see all the detail, such as the shadows in the folds of the gown, the buttons on the shirt, or the subtle gray shadings in the clouds. Then raise it to get the brightest picture possible without washing out those details. You'll generally want to set the contrast below the maximum level.
  • Color and tint: Once the black-and-white quality is optimized, it's time to adjust the color settings. Start with color temperature, sometimes called color tone. We recommend choosing the "warm" or "low" setting, so whites don't appear too blue. Then adjust the tint/hue control so that flesh tones look natural, neither too red nor too greenish-yellow—this setting generally works best when it's in the middle of the range. Adjust the color-level control (saturation) so that colors look vivid and realistic but not like they're glowing. All these settings may interact with one another in odd ways, so repeat the process as necessary.
  • Sharpness and more: Manufacturers often set the sharpness control rather high and turn on noise-reduction and other image-enhancement modes. These are rarely needed when you're watching high-quality HD programming or a DVD movie. In most cases, resist the temptation to crank up sharpness to enhance HD's fine detail. The best HDTVs need little or no help to show all the resolution in HD images.

If you set the sharpness control too high, the background will start to look grainy, and a halo will appear around the edges of objects, making the overall image appear less natural. We suggest you turn the sharpness control down to zero, and then add sharpness sparingly only if the image looks soft. Also turn off any noise-reduction and image-enhancement modes; these tend to reduce image detail.

There's one exception to this rule: If your TV viewing still consists mainly of standard-definition programs with typically noisy picture quality, then you may want to explore the noise reduction modes. 

Remember, if you're unhappy with your TV calibration, just hit the reset button to start over. 

3. Consider the source
Here's one wrinkle: You may want to tweak the picture settings for various video sources, depending on the signal and its TV input. Each TV input has different circuitry that processes various types of signals, so brightness, color, and other picture attributes may vary. You may find that an older DVD player connected to the component-video input yields a different quality picture than the same player connected via HDMI. When you switch sources, you'll get the best picture quality with settings customized to each input. Some TVs let you store the settings; others, unfortunately, do not.

If you're a real picture-quality aficionado, you can calibrate your TV more precisely by using a calibration Blu-ray disc, such as the "Digital Video Essentials HD Basics" or "Disney WOW: World of Wonder on Blu-ray." When we tested these discs a few years ago we found the latter was the easier of the two to use for first-timers. Both discs will walk you through a step-by-step picture alignment process, eliminating guesswork. In addition, some THX-certified Blu-rays include a free THX Optimizer calibration tool that will help you optimize video and audio settings on your TV.

So that's really all it takes to get your TV primed for prime-time viewing. At the very least, try switching to one of the more accurate presets. But if you decide to go whole hog with the individual adjustments in time for the pigskin pageant, let us know how it went, and whether the improvements you've made are noticeable to your other family members. And of course, you can check out our TV Ratings if you decide it's time for a new TV.