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Balancing presentation for HD, SD audiences requires new thinking about TV composition, aesthetics

Broadcasters that have transitioned to local HD news or those who plan to do so over the next few years shouldn’t forget that the majority of their audience will be watching on a 4:3 screen — they should do nothing visually that confuses their audience or makes them feel as if they are missing something.

That’s the bottom line on a list of HDTV tips Dave Folsom, VP and CTO of Raycom Media, presented earlier in the month at the Competitive Television Summit in Orlando, FL. While the list, assembled from the experience Folsom and Raycom have gained from putting a dozen stations on the air with HD local news in 2008, offers some technical advice, many of the tips focus on implementing the 16:9 aspect ratio of HD from an aesthetic and compositional point of view.

“It’s important to speak to our 16:9 audience and provide content that visually makes sense, but we can’t forget that the majority of our audience going forward is 4:3,” Folsom said. Creating a look that makes sense and is pleasing to both the 4:3 and 16:9 is the goal.

According to Folsom, one key area is the appearance of character generator text. “Things look smaller in HD,” he said, “so be sure to use bolder graphics and framing.” Folsom illustrated his point with the standard five- or seven-day weather forecast in local newscasts. “If you format it so it looks appropriate in 4:3, and remember the majority of our audience is for the moment 4:3, when you look at it in 16:9, the numbers will look much smaller because they will reside in a much larger area of the screen.” Folsom advises using graphics and text that “almost look too bold or too large” in 4:3.

Similarly, verbatims and double-box graphics require special care. Here, the problem is related to placing two 16:9 images side by side on the screen. “There is no way you can format it for 4:3, which again is the majority of our audience, without the two images being so tiny you can’t see them,” he said. Employing a little creativity should solve the compositional problem for both the 4:3 and the 16:9 audiences.

With verbatims, not only will it be necessary to come up with a creative solution to present two on-screen boxes to audiences viewing on screens with two different aspect ratios, but it also will be necessary to make the text used in the verbatim box larger and bolder to accommodate the HDTV audience, Folsom said.

To a certain degree, these problems stem from two competing, contradictory compositional demands. The original golden rectangle of the 4:3 aspect ratio, when it was created for use in early movie houses, was ideal for symmetrically composed screens. “The balance in the screen was excellent and looked great,” he said.

“When you go to a wider screen, balance doesn’t look good. If you have two people in the middle of the screen talking to each other, you have this great vast space on either side that doesn’t look appropriate,” Folsom said.

“What really works better is a graphical trick that’s been around since painting composition has been understood. In a wider screen, you really want to unbalance the screen,” he said. Unbalancing can take the form of moving the action slightly off center or more likely using graphical content with an anchor or reporter who is talking, he added.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.