Display's The Thing

November 4, 2001
Barefoot boys in Madagascar drove their cattle under a billboard for a 16:9 Philips plasma TV. Farmers outside Syracuse, NY entered a tent to look at large-screen 4:3 Sony TVs. And, under the marquee of a hit Broadway musical, the producer, director, and engineer-in-charge of an HDTV show agonized over its framing. It was the summer of 2001, and things will get worse before they get better.

Once upon a time, those who shot television shows had a pretty good idea of how they would be seen. Yes, transmission could add noise and ghosts, and poor adjustments could affect the color, but at least the relationship of, say, a head shot to the edges of the frame was reasonably well known. That's not the case any longer-anywhere. T

he average annual income in Madagascar is about $250, so plasma panels aren't going to be a mass-market item there for a while. TV has yet to reach major sections of the island, and there are just 2.2 TV sets per 100 population.

The U.S. trade mission says there are seven television broadcasters in Madagascar; most directories list just one or two, and that's all that seems to be receivable even in Antananarivo, the capital. But, whatever the number, none of the broadcasters transmit 16:9; all are 4:3. Watching 4:3 programming on a 16:9 display requires truncating the top and/or bottom, stretching the width (making everyone fat), or shrinking the image to leave blank bars on either side of the screen.

The farmers visiting Time Warner Cable's tent at the New York State Fair this summer would have had no difficulty watching standards-converted Madagascar programming on the two large 4:3 Sony TVs exhibited there. Many could also afford those sets. Unfortunately, what was being demonstrated was 16:9 HDTV programming. It was shrunk to fit, leaving blank bars on top and bottom; it could also have been stretched (making everyone skinny) or truncated.

The group shooting the HDTV musical was trying to determine the best framing for the dancers. HDTV sets, like NTSC sets, have a certain amount of overscan, so feet positioned at the very bottom of the frame might be cut off. On the other hand, when HDTV is shrunk to fit in a 4:3 frame, viewers can see down to the last active scanning line. If the image is framed for overscan, they see too much floor. Alas, there's no solution to the problem during the transition from 4:3 to 16:9. But is that transition taking place?

The cover of a Best Buy ad supplement last month showed RCA's MM52110 52-inch "High-Definition Projection TV," but its screen was 4:3, not 16:9. Inside there were 4:3 HDTV products from Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony-along with 16:9 from Philips and Toshiba.

Have the latter companies decided to make the transition to 16:9-only? No. Circuit City's ad supplement on the same day showed a 4:3 Philips HDTV display; one from The Wiz, a New York-area retailer, had Toshiba HDTV displays in both 4:3 and 16:9.

Is it because old inventory is being sold off? No. The latest HDTV lines from most consumer-electronics manufacturers include both 4:3 and 16:9 displays. Framing isn't the only problem. The blank bars used when pictures are shrunk to fit are already damaging high-brightness projection tubes. Manufacturers say their warranties are void if viewers watch too much of the wrong kinds of programming.

Pictures may also become smaller than expected. Sometimes commercials made for 4:3 TV are already in a 16:9-letterbox form. When those are shown in 16:9 transmissions, they appear to have a border all the way around. And if those transmissions are viewed in letterbox mode on a 4:3 display, they are shrunk still further. What might have occupied 100 percent of the height of the screen ends up occupying just 56 percent.

There are yet more problems associated with unmatched aspect ratios. Problems are to be expected during the transition from today's 4:3 to tomorrow's 16:9. But if even some new HDTV sets are 4:3, maybe it's still yesterday.

Receive regular news and technology updates.
Sign up for our free newsletter here.