A man standing in front of a large TV with a basketball hoop on the screen.

With the college-football and NFL seasons underway, you’re probably spending more time thinking about your fantasy-draft picks than how to fiddle with your TV’s settings.

But making some adjustments to those settings can help you and your friends experience the gridiron action in all its high-def glory. You don’t have to be a tech guru to get your set running like a champ.

Things have changed, though. In the past, when you brought a TV home, 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, TVs offer a first-time setup option that lets users select a “home” mode instead of a “retail” or “store” setting. But you 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.

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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. If the Dallas Cowboys’ blue jerseys start to look more like aqua, you can just bring the set back to its 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 automatically 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 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. On other sets, if you try to change the settings, your picture mode will automatically shift to a “custom” or “preference” mode. Either way, the 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 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 details in the dark areas. 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, a man’s dress shirt, or a sky full of puffy white clouds. Lower the contrast until you can see all the detail, 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 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 more thing to consider: You may want to tweak the picture settings differently for various video sources, depending on the signal and its TV input. Because each TV input has different circuitry to process those signals, brightness, color, and other picture attributes may vary with sources. With settings customized to each input, you get the best picture quality regardless. Some TVs let you store the settings; others do not.

What About 4K HDR?

Many 4K TVs now have high dynamic range (HDR) capability, and the big news this year is that for the first time, some NFL games will be shown in 4K with HDR. Both Fubo, a streaming service, and Altice's Optimum cable service will offer 10 NFL games in 4K with HDR this season, which are being produced by Fox as part of its Thursday night lineup. The first 4K game will be the Philadelphia Eagles-Green Bay Packers matchup on September 26 at 8 p.m. ET.

Last year DirecTV, Dish, and streaming service Fubo TV showed a few college games in 4K, and this year Optimum is joining the mix.

It's possible that DirecTV and Dish will also offer the Fox NFL games in 4K as well, but neither company has so far made an announcement. We reached out to both companies, but haven't yet received a response.

Why, you may ask, is HDR such a big deal? It allows TVs to display a wider range of brightness from black to white, so you see more details in the very darkest and brightest areas of the picture. You also see “specular highlights,” the momentary glints of brightness that appear on, say, a car’s chrome bumper or a Roman gladiator’s armored breastplate.

Without HDR, these highlights appear no brighter than other objects in the scene.

Most TVs automatically kick into an HDR mode when you watch a TV show or movie formatted in HDR, typically raising the backlight to its maximum level to take full advantage of the set’s higher dynamic range.

With some sets, though, you’re blocked from making certain picture-quality adjustments when the TV is in an HDR mode. Others give you total control over the individual settings, so you can make tweaks to brightness, color, and contrast, for example.

If you do make changes to the settings in the HDR mode, go back to your regular HD settings to see whether they’ve changed, too, because some sets apply the new adjustments universally. That’s not ideal. Regular HD video has requirements that are different from requirements for 4K content with HDR, and you really want the TV to be optimized for each—without having to circle back continually to make tweaks.

If this sounds tricky, remember: If you’re unhappy with your TV calibration, just hit the reset button to start over.

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.