The New "TV Safe": Producing 4:3 For A 16:9 World

I hate to be the one to tell you, Mr. Advertiser, but a growing number of viewers are choosing to NOT watch part of your TV commercial.

No, I’m not referring to those few who “zap” commercials with their remote, or who are rumored to leave the room while your message is airing.

There’s good news...the problem I mentioned can be fixed. But, it’s going to take a concerted effort by the people who produce your television commercials. With a little effort, you can use the TV palette in a way that fights back against the “stretchers” and the “zoomers.” Who are they? More in a moment. But first, a little background:

Until recently, the TV world as we’ve all known it has used a video image comprised of 525 lines of resolution. These lines, rapidly redrawing themselves every half-second in front of us, get displayed on a glass a box...that we call a television.

The aspect ratio of these TVs is referred to as 4:3. In other words, the ratio of the screen’s width (4 units) to its height (3 units) is 4 to 3. The actual screen sizes that retailers quote and use are determined by measuring the display area diagonally, a truly clever marketing ploy created years ago to make people feel better about buying a TV. After all, a TV screen measuring 42” wide by 32” high has a corner to corner (diagonal) measurement of 53”. It’s easier to call that baby a 53” Home Theater Big Screen, isn’t it? (Would you like same day delivery with that?)!

Fast forward to the present. High definition displays are the norm at all the chain stores, as projection, plasma, LCD, DLP and now SED screens tempt you to watch “The Big Game” in a larger-than-life manner, all from the comfort of your living room. You’ll see that these televisions are wider than they used to be, since they now display an image whose ratio is 16 units by 9 units (aka “widescreen”).

OK, here’s where my initial premise comes into play. While it’s fun to watch Law & Order, the Winter Olympics and the widescreen DVD edition of The Wedding Crashers on these 16:9 HDTVs, the vast majority of television programs and channels that most people watch are still distributed using the old 4:3 display ratio.

While not a round peg vs. square hole scenario, it’s close. If you have a widescreen TV, you’re often stuck watching a “square” picture on a rectangular-shaped screen.

“Why is everyone so fat?” is the spousal reaction most often heard when attempting to s-t-r-e-t-c-h that square wider from left to right to fill the rectangle. Conversely, “Why can’t I see the stuff at the top & bottom of the screen?” is heard when one fills the rectangle by zooming in on the square-shaped program picture. It’s a no-win situation.

The companies that make these widescreen TVs are well aware of this. They offer a variety of crop / zoom / stretch modes in an effort to fix the problem, but until every program on every channel is offered in a widescreen format, the viewer has no choice but to compromise.

Me? I choose to zoom. I’ve learned the hard way that if you have a plasma or projection TV, you must fill the screen to avoid what’s known as “burn-in.” That’s the permanent residual appearance of vertical black bars on the left and right sides of your expensive screen. (It’s in your TV owner’s manual. It’s a good idea to read it.)

The problem with zooming in on the 4:3 program to fill your 16:9 TV is that you end up cropping off the top and bottom of the picture. Like I said, it’s a compromise, but if you produce your commercials with that fact in mind, you can avoid this problem.

If you think this doesn’t affect your advertisers’ commercials, think again: The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that over 10 million digital TVs (the majority being widescreen models) have been shipped in the U.S. Furthermore, it’s not just commercials that get cropped, it’s your station’s news ticker...your lower third Chyron supers...and the time and temperature bug during your morning news broadcasts, too.

The solution? Buy an HDTV set, and install it in your station’s commercial production suite. These can be purchased at the discount warehouse stores for under $600. Make sure it’s an LCD display as they’re not affected by burn-in.

Now, when you’re producing your client’s commercial, you’ll know not to put his phone number at the very bottom. You’ll see how their web address is getting cut off...and how you can fix it. This is not to say that the top and bottom 10% of the screen are forbidden real estate. I’m just saying, keep the “call to action” elements OUT of that area.

Put yourself in your viewer’s shoes...or on their couch, as it were. Watch your station in “zoom” mode for a day on a widescreen TV. You’ll see what I mean.

Jeffrey Ulrich is the new business development manager at WHEC, Rochester, NY. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of HBI, Inc. He can be reached through his website,, or at