Give Your Set an NFL Season TV Tuneup

Tweaking the settings can help your set look its best for football—and everything else

watching super bowl multiple

With the NFL season in full swing, you’re probably spending more time second-guessing your fantasy-football roster than fiddling with your TV’s settings.

But making some adjustments to your television can help you experience this season’s action in all its high-def glory. Because, chances are, the picture on your set doesn’t look as good as it can.

Things have changed in the past few years. When you brought a TV years ago, the settings would typically be cranked too high—to “torch mode,” in industry-speak. Manufacturers turned up the set’s brightness controls and oversaturated the colors to make the picture pop in the harsh lighting of a typical retail sales floor.

These days, you may have the opposite problem. Because manufacturers try to hit Energy Star energy-use guidelines, the out-of-the-box settings might make the TV too dim or undersaturate the colors.

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You could pay a few hundred dollars for a professional TV calibration, but it’s easy to do it yourself. And you don’t have to worry about messing things up; almost all TVs have a reset button to bring everything back to the default settings.

If you’re a Consumer Reports member, you can also consult our exclusive TV Screen Optimizer, which provides the best settings for thousands of individual television models. These are the settings we arrived at after calibrating each TV in our labs to get it looking its best.

Ready to start tweaking the settings on your own? Here’s how.

Start With a Picture Mode Preset

All TVs now come with a menu of picture modes with names such as “vivid,” “natural,” “sports,” and “cinema.” When you select one, the brightness, contrast, and sharpness are adjusted to preset values.

Our advice: Don’t choose “sports” mode for watching sports—or anything else. That could artificially boost brightness, contrast, and colors, and turn on motion smoothing (more on that below). Stay away from the “vivid” and “dynamic” modes, too. They tend to overemphasize contrast and sharpness, and lower the brightness to less-than-optimal levels.

Instead, we’ve found that modes with names like “natural,” “cinema,” and “movie" generally provide the best results.

Become a member of Consumer Reports to get access to our TV Screen Optimizer, which will help you get the perfect picture on your TV in just minutes. Join today to get started.

Tweak the TV 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 while staying in that mode. On other sets, once you start additional fiddling, the TV will automatically shift to a “custom” or “preference” mode. Either way, the following steps will be the same.

  • Brightness level: This is also called black level, and it’s critical for top picture quality. Ideally, a TV should be able to display deep black areas of the picture without losing the detail within the darkest areas. Freeze-frame a nighttime scene, such as one from a Batman or 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 that the black gets as black as possible without obscuring the detail. With LCD sets, you won’t get as deep a black as you can with a plasma or OLED TV.
  • Contrast: Also called white level, contrast affects how bright the picture looks. Find an image with lots of white—say, a wedding gown 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 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 showing 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 certain objects, making the overall image appear less natural. We suggest that you turn the sharpness control down to zero, then add sharpness sparingly if the image looks soft. Turn off any noise-reduction and image-enhancement modes, as well; those tend to reduce image detail.

Here’s one final thing to consider. Because the brightness, color, and other picture attributes can vary based on the device you’re using to supply the image, you may want to customize the settings for each input you’re using. Some TVs let you store the settings; others don’t.

Video Tips

In the clip below, Consumer Reports TV expert Claudio Ciacci shows Jack Rico, the host of the “Consumer 101” TV show, how to tweak a TV set for optimal performance.

James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.