The Shape Of Things To Come

The transition to widescreen video would go much faster if the government were to spend billions of dollars to replace every TV set in the country. Preposterous? There's a precedent.

In the earliest days of alternating current (AC) power, frequencies weren't standardized. In 1891, Westinghouse built the first 60-Hz generating plant in the U.S., and AEG built the first 50-Hz plant in Germany, but that didn't settle matters. GE built a 50-Hz plant in southern California, an area that didn't completely change to 60-Hz power until 1948. And then there was southern Ontario, Canada.

It got its electric power from Niagara Falls. Industrial plants in the area operated at 25 Hz, and that was also the frequency delivered to homes. Then, in the late 1940s, a decision was made to join the U.S. in 60-Hz power.

Virtually every electric motor in the area had to be replaced: every clock, phonograph, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, etc. The process wasn't completed until 1957, and it cost about $400 million in 1950 dollars÷close to $3 billion in today's money.

There have also been other mandatory equipment changes in recent history. The switch from manufactured gas to natural gas, for example, required the replacement of stove burners.

The introduction of NTSC color in 1954 didn't involve a mass TV-set swap because the new system was compatible with existing black and white TV sets. The failure of the earlier CBS-developed sequential color system is often attributed to its incompatibility with existing TV sets.

Automotive catalytic exhaust converters required lead-free gas, and that meant new pumps. Many filling stations, however, still offer some leaded gas. To prevent the destruction of the catalytic converters, leaded-gas nozzles are too large to fit cars requiring lead-free gas. And then thereâs the shape of moving pictures.

The 4:3 shape of ordinary television is often attributed to Edison's movies, but it had appeared in a flip-book patent much earlier. It might have gone the way of Edison's cylinder phonograph had it not been for the Lumiere brothers in France. They'd initially selected a 5:4 shape, but changed to 4:3 to be compatible with Edison, establishing a standard.

The 16:9 shape was calculated to have minimum loss of area for an electronic cinematography system intended to serve every shape from ordinary TV to CinemaScope movies. NHK played the role of the Lumieres, dropping its 5:3 HDTV shape in favor of the U.S.-developed 16:9.

So now there are 16:9 TV sets and programs. But there are also 4:3 TV sets and programs. The two are not as compatible as NTSC color and black and white. Without viewer intervention, 4:3 programs get stretched out in 16:9 displays. With intervention, they either have their tops and bottoms cut off or end up with black stripes on the sides of the screen.

The blue light-emitting phosphors in those black stripes don't age, while those in the center section do. As a result, a visible hue shift eventually appears at the stripe boundary when the whole screen is filled, something referred to as burn-in.

TV set manufacturers are taking the lead-free-gas approach. "Don't watch the wrong shape more than 15 percent of the time," they say. That means the type of TV a viewer buys determines programming choices.

If the lead-free gas approach doesn't work and the compatible-color approach doesn't work, the only remaining model for a successful transition is that of natural gas and 60-Hz power. Consumers use the old system until someone comes and replaces it with the new system.

There's no technical reason that this couldn't be done for picture-shape changing. Every broadcaster in a market would have to transmit nothing but 4:3 until Transition Day and nothing but 16:9 thereafter.

On Transition Day, an army of technicians would enter every home in the market and replace all 4:3 TVs with 16:9. All VCR tapes and DVDs would be confiscated and replaced with widescreen versions. In one fell swoop, aspect ratio would no longer be an issue