It's A Wide World÷Somewhere Else

An American in Paris÷or just about anywhere else in Western Europe÷could easily get the impression that there's a lot more HDTV over there than here. Walk into any TV set retailer's shop, for example, and there will likely be a wall of widescreen sets with crystal-clear images. In Britain, by the end of last year, more than 18 percent of households were widescreen-equipped. In homes there that were capable of receiving digital broadcasts, cable, or satellite, it was more like 30 percent.

On closer examination, none of those TV sets are actually HDTV. Despite earlier experiments, there are no HDTV broadcasts in Britain. HDTV is over over there. But, of the new TV sets in Britain that are 17 inches or larger, 60 percent are widescreen.

In Japan, where there have been regularly scheduled HDTV broadcasts for more than 13 years, there certainly are some HDTV sets. An optimistic estimate is that as many as 400,000 have been sold, including those to commercial and institutional customers. In less time, through the end of last year, more than 15 million non-HDTV widescreen sets were sold to Japanese consumers.

Here in the U.S., more than two million high-resolution consumer television displays were sold to dealers by the end of last year, most of them meeting the Consumer Electronics Association's definition of HDTV (which doesn't include a requirement for any HDTV reception). Perhaps 40 percent of those are widescreen, so, even if every one sold to a dealer made it into a home, less than 1 percent of U.S. homes were widescreen-equipped.

Why are there so many more widescreen sets in Europe and Japan than in the U.S.? There are many reasons.

Europe made a concerted effort toward conversion, including funding widescreen programming. Since July of last year, all commercials in Britain have had to be widescreen. Then there's signaling. Even in the U.S., most plasma panels have a widescreen shape. And many of them show non-widescreen images stretched to fit the display. In Europe, broadcasts, DVDs, and pre-recorded VHS tapes are equipped with aspect ratio identification signals, and TV sets adjust themselves automatically.

Then there's our fear of being ripped-off. A 30-inch traditional-shape TV has a screen 18 inches high. Widescreen programming delivered in letterbox mode will appear just 13.5 inches high, smaller than the height of the screen on a 23-inch set. If the consumer paid for a screen 18 inches high, then the consumer wants an image 18 inches high to fill it. That, anyway, is the theory.

HBO staff say they continue to get complaints whenever they air letterboxed programming. But music videos on such channels as MTV have long been letterboxed. So are many commercials. So are some screenings on movie channels. Continental Europe, even before there were any issues regarding HDTV or widescreen TV, had long been running letterboxed movies. In Britain, however, there was considerable anti-letterboxing sentiment. So there was a compromise.

The globally accepted shape of advanced widescreen television is 16:9. Traditional television's 4:3 may be characterized as 12:9. So British broadcasters have compromised for analog broadcasts on 14:9.

A 14:9 image shape would fill almost 16 of the 18 inches of screen height on a 30-inch set, that is, it would if the set had no overscan whatsoever. Given normal consumer set overscanning, 14:9 comes close to filling the entire screen.

So, for those reasons (and perhaps others), widescreen TV is rapidly spreading throughout British households, while in America it's barely creeping. High prices of HDTV displays and difficulty of HDTV reception could be part of the problem here, but then there's the very peculiar fact that, with 16:9 accepted globally as the shape of HDTV by 1985, many U.S. HDTV screens, 17 years later, remain 4:3.

The reason is simple. Most American television programming remains 4:3. If a consumer of a $150 19-inch TV set gets upset seeing black bars on letterboxed programming, imagine the emotions of a consumer of a $15,000 widescreen plasma display watching 4:3 programming.

To sum up advanced TV in the rest of the world versus here: Wide, wide-not.