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HD channels on your glorious flat screen, when you come across a show you kinda recognize, only all the actors have been replaced by stubby, wider versions of themselves.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.
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.
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.
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.