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Summary:

So there you are, flipping through the crystal clear HD channels on your glorious flat screen, when you come across a show you kinda recognize, only all the actors have been replaced by stubby, wider versions of themselves. In this alternate universe, there are no circles, […]

So there you are, flipping through the crystal clear HD channels on your glorious flat screen, when you come across a show you kinda recognize, only all the actors have been replaced by stubby, wider versions of themselves. In this alternate universe, there are no circles, only ovals. Why, this isn’t HD at all, you think to yourself, they’ve just stretched out the picture! This is true, and here’s why some networks do it.

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First, it’s obvious that not everything was shot in HD originally. Episodes of shows like Seinfeld and Just Shoot Me were created for really old teevee. They’re naturally going to be in the traditional 4×3 aspect ratio, which doesn’t fit the modern 16×9 formatted screen. So if a network like A&E or TBS wants to simulcast their programming in both standard and high-definition, the older programs either need to have those black bars on the side to retain the original shape, or the picture has to be stretched to fill the screen.

But is a stretched picture better than black bars? (I want to know your opinion on that in a second.) According to A&E and TBS — yes.

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I spoke with Dan Silberman, vice president of publicity for A&E Television Networks. “Research was done and people preferred it this way,” said Silberman, “It’s not a perfect solution. This way if they want to see it stretched they can, or they can watch it in 4×3 on the standard definition channel.”

Clyde Smith, senior vice president global broadcast technology and standards for Turner Broadcasting emailed me a more historical and technical answer. Evidently, when the company first started HD broadcasts, they didn’t stretch the picture, instead using black bars, but that caused problems. According to Smith:

WTBS received some complaints from viewers. It was found that most complaints came from those with plasma displays or older projection systems. They informed us the side panels on the channel 20 signal were burning into their displays. In most early HD displays, and in many of those still available today, if the display received a 1080 signal, they could not adjust the aspect ratio to fill the screen and so there was no way for the viewer to fill the screen and avoid the burn in.

TBS also found out that people didn’t like the size of the picture changing. Additionally, TBS did not have the HD rights to some of its movie content. Those rights would have to be negotiated, which would delay the availability of some movies, which are shot widescreen, on its HD channel.

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But the stretching story doesn’t stop there. There are different kinds of stretching techniques used. If you look at the top screen cap of A&E’s Crossing Jordan (hey, isn’t that Chip from Kate & Allie?), the entire picture is stretched out using what’s called a central panoramic stretch method. That’s what produces those squat images.

The screen cap from Just Shoot Me lower down sports a different stretch technology. TBS worked with a company called Teranex to develop an algorithm called Flexview. This method scans the image and determines what the most important part is. This important area is kept at the normal ratio while stretching out what it deems less important. So for a sit-com like Just Shoot Me, most of the action is taking place in the middle, which retains the normal shape with the sides being stretched out. It’s harder to notice the distortion until the camera moves, which creates a warped hall of mirrors effect.

The issue of stretching or black bars will eventually become irrelevant as more content is created from day one in HD. Mr. Silberman from A&E says that all of its original programming, except for one show, will be shot in HD moving forward. And as newer shows shot in a widescreen format move into syndication, they’ll replace the older ones that literally don’t fit.

Until then, which solution do you prefer? Cast your vote in our poll and sound off in our comment section.

  1. Here in the United Arab Emirates where for many people money is not at all tight 16:9 format flat screens are selling like hot cakes.

    In all the bars, cafés and patisseries (where people are consuming their hot cakes) the screens mounted are all wide format. No channel broadcasts anything but 4:3 SD.

    Invariably the viewers are treated to the bloated view shown in your first illustration on this post.

    Indeed this ‘wide bodied’ morphology is becoming a serious role model for the population here.

    (Or nmaybe that’s just the hot cakes.)

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  2. I don’t want a streched or cut picture, period. I want the original work from the author as much as possible with the device I use.

    I believe that people prefer the streched image because they want to fill their new expensive gizmo to impress their peers.

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  3. [...] wider versions of themselves. In this alternate universe, there are no circles, only ovals. Why? Continue Reading on NewTeeVee Share/Send Sphere Print Previous [...]

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  4. We shouldn’t cater to the idiots: the correct answer is ALWAYS the original aspect ratio. The thinking that “users like it better this way” leads to stupidity like cropping 2.35:1 movies to fit 16:9 screens (basically, cutting off the right and left parts of the movie) because people don’t like black bars at the top and bottom.

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  5. A&E is wrong is everything is stretched. Not all TVs can “squeeze” their pictures, but almost all can “Fill” screen. Also, the 4:3 SD channel provided by my cable company is quite crap. Death to 480i.

    TBSHD and TNTHD are worthless except for sports.

    Vincent is correct. Broadcasters should ALWAYS use original Aspect Ratio. End of story.

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  6. Soon, we’ll be paying an extra $200 for TVs with “Anti-Flexview Technology”

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  7. simply not true HD. they werent shot able to conform properly to 16:9. there is a process to do this, but you lose some picture and the process is long and expensive, the other option, stretching!

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  8. The Flexview stuff sounds like the evolution of “pan & scan” – I say deliver everything in it’s original display ratio and let me decide on my TV how to handle it. My sets have several options of stretching and zooming, or doing nothing. But I’m geekier than most. When I think about my mom, the best solution is to fill the screen (using whatever method). She won’t know the difference, but she does notice black bars.

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  9. Anything but original aspect ratio is an abomination. Consumers need to insist on accurate content, and receiver and display manufacturers can then outfit devices with choices appropriate for those who want to distort their viewing. Don’t maim the content, once that’s done there’s little that can be done to view it properly.

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  10. The whole squatty body issue has kept allot of people turned off to the purchase of an H. D. set. It has been displayed this way in the stores , from the big box places to the higher end specialty retailers , and is partially to blame for the slow uptake of H.D. by older Americans. The picture on a 720 p display , which Wal-Mart thinks is the second coming of Kool-Aid , has also got a big hurdle to overcome with sports fans. Even with an H.D. signal , the pictures are streaked and leave ghosts… it looks horrible. No one is gonna shell out the bucks for a lower quality of reception. The industry has been completely unwilling to acknowlege these issues…thanks for this great article . I will use it to grease the pockets … uhh , I mean inform those with the giving spirit of Saint Nick in their hearts and a sales add in their purse. Merry Christmas to all Web-Workers worldwide.

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