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Widescreen TV 3. 'Broadcasters Behaving Badly' by Richard G. Elen


Original Still from The Edge of the World
Stretched Still from The Edge of the World
Cropped Still from The Edge of the World

A still from The Edge of the World (1937), in the original 4:3 framing, and in stretched and cropped versions designed to fit a 16:9 television screen

Talking of zooming and cropping brings us to the controversial topic of how British broadcasters adapt existing 4:3 television programmes and clips (such as archive material) for 16:9 widescreen. In the US, this problem has only arisen with the advent of high-definition television (HDTV) which is in 16:9 - in fact it's always in 16:9: there is no 4:3 mode and you are expected to have a 16:9 display. Their solution has been simple: the channel always broadcasts a 16:9 image and if they show any 4:3 content, they broadcast it 'pillarboxed' - the full 4:3 image is broadcast, occupying the full height of the screen, with black bars at either side. This is, essentially, the only really sensible way of doing it. 'Pillarboxing' is known as 'window-boxing' in the USA.

Not so in the UK, however. In most cases, a programme that is completely in 4:3 is shown in 4:3 pillarboxed. Good. However, when 4:3 clips are included in a 16:9 show, they are seldom shown in their original format: one of two horrible things is done to them.

Why this is the case is a mystery to most people. Networks instruct programme-makers to avoid changing ratios during a programme. What they mean is that producers shouldn't switch aspect ratios during a programme - and quite rightly so. Widescreen sets often switch aspect ratios automatically according to a signal from the broadcaster. This 'widescreen signalling' (WSS) is embedded in the start of line 23 of the PAL Plus TV picture and is not usually visible (there are 625 lines in a UK PAL TV picture but only 576 can be seen on a correctly set-up screen) and your set either responds to that signal directly or to a signal on pin 8 of the SCART connector generated from it by your satellite, cable or Freeview box.

Most sets switch aspect ratios rather dramatically - for example with a ping or click, a jump in the image and possibly with an on-screen display appearing for a few seconds to tell you the new aspect ratio. Not very nice. It's entirely reasonable, therefore, that programme-commissioning bodies should require programme-makers not to do this (despite the fact that a commercial 16:9 channel showing a 4:3 programme will switch mercilessly to widescreen for the ads and then back again afterwards. But that's another issue.).

"I see fat people"

It would appear that producers interpret network aspect ratio guidelines not as admonitions never to switch ratios during a programme, but as requiring everything in a 16:9 programme to occupy the entire screen. So, instead of showing 4:3 archive clips the way they should be shown - i.e. in 4:3 with pillarboxing provided by the broadcaster - they are often treated to one of two nightmares.

The worst, and thankfully least common, is that the 4:3 image is stretched horizontally to full 16:9 width. This looks absolutely horrible and, although the whole frame is shown, its original aspect ratio is lost and everything is unnaturally wide. To paraphrase Haley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense, "I see fat people!" We will return to this later, as it is a mistake that it's much easier to make yourself than to allow a broadcaster to make for you.

Zoom and crop

The other, much more common nightmare is zooming and cropping.

Zoom and crop is essentially the vertical equivalent of centre cutout: the original 4:3 image is enlarged, in proportion, to fill the entire 16:9 screen width, and the top and bottom of the picture are lost.

You would think at the very least that programme makers would look to see what happens when they do this, but they evidently don't. Tops of heads - or even entire heads - are lost at the top of the screen; graphics and captions at the bottom are lost, or more usually cut in half (so you know they're there but can't actually read them); and enlarging the picture in itself visibly reduces its quality, particularly as the systems used to process the images don't seem to be very good at maximising image quality.

On a large, widescreen TV, this looks ghastly. It should be possible for broadcasters to at least control how zooming is done, so that they can favour the top or bottom of the screen if there is something important there, but almost nobody seems to bother. If it was done thoughtfully, however, and the zooming was correctly positioned vertically to retain important frame content, then maybe this would be a more acceptable practice.

But ideally, 4:3 content should be shown in 4:3, and that's the long and short (or wide and narrow) of it. This is exactly what BBC Sport does, for example. They often have match coverage in 4:3 and show the entire content pillarboxed in a 16:9 frame - sometimes with interesting patterns in the sidebars to lift the monotony of black - and intercut with studio commentary in full 16:9. That's the way to do it!

When you ask broadcasters why they indulge in thoughtless stretching or zoom-and-cropperama with 4:3 material, they generally just tell you either that nobody notices or cares so why bother, or that people don't like images not using all of their shiny new 16:9 sets. Well all I can say is, if people don't notice or care, why not just leave 4:3 clips alone? It must surely be easier to do nothing than to zoom and crop, for example. If you see broadcasters treating 4:3 material badly in widescreen productions, do let them know - and hope that they won't take the position that people who write to them are not typical viewers so their comments can be ignored.

Related Articles

Pictures of The Wide Tomorrow

How the original TV shape came about, and why it needed to change

Widescreen on Conventional TVs

Fitting wide pictures into narrow frames

Broadcasters Behaving Badly

Stretching, zooming, cropping: how to wreck the original image

Make Your Own Mistakes

The perils and pitfalls of adjusting aspect ratios at home

The HDTV Challenge

The high-definition future and what it means for viewers and broadcasters


Seeing films and programmes as their makers intended