Overarching logic

By Carl Ellis

Widescreen television is the future. But it's not the past. So why try to pretend, asks Carl Ellis.

Television in the UK has undergone many changes in the last half century. From a black and white medium, broadcasting on 405-line VHF with a monaural soundtrack, it has evolved several times over the last fifty years.

As the start-up on the 'final' day of London Weekend Television showed, it is now broadcasting in colour, on either 625-line UHF or the MPEG2 encoding system and stereo sound has been the norm for over a decade.

Of course, it was necessary for viewers to upgrade in order to get the benefit of increased picture definition, colour or stereo sound, but at least those still stuck with their old sets didn't lose out - they still got the same sound and picture they had always got.

The move to digital television has changed this. With most new programmes now being made in widescreen, some broadcasters are effectively transmitting programmes using three different aspect ratios.

Widescreen programmes are shown in 14:9 on analogue, while digital viewers can set their set-top boxes to watch in either 4:3 or 16:9.

However, whilst broadcasters' commitment to widescreen should be applauded, many aspects of the move to the format are deeply unsatisfactory.

Part of the reason appears to be the speed at which some broadcasters are switching to widescreen. The effects of this indecent haste can be seen on BBC News 24, which insists on broadcasting in widescreen even though much of its source material is still in 4:3.

The decision to broadcast News 24 in widescreen appears to stem from a belief that digital television must be in widescreen, a policy that affects many of the Corporation's channels, from CBBC through to BBC Four.

This policy can be summed up as 'widescreenisation', or the practice of converting 4:3 material to the 16:9 widescreen format.

As a viewer I find it difficult to understand what broadcasters are trying to achieve with this practice. Most viewers have become used to the horizontal black bars at the top and bottom of a 4:3 screen when a programme is shown in either 14:9 or 16:9, so it's logical to assume that widescreen TV owners would become used to vertical black bars at the sides of a 4:3 picture.

This seems even more obvious when you consider that widescreen television owners are currently in the minority. It seems more likely that the majority of them will have invested in 16:9 specifically to gain the benefit of watching digital television and DVDs in widescreen.

The likelihood of these viewers complaining about 'pillarboxing' is surely less likely than that of the average viewer complaining about "missing half of the picture" when watching a widescreen broadcast on a 4:3 set (and in any case, education should be used to inform these viewers that they're actually getting more of the picture, albeit at a smaller size).

Instead, broadcasters, notably - and most disappointingly - the BBC, seem determined to ensure that widescreen viewers get a picture that fills the whole screen, regardless of how a programme was designed to be shown.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in compilations such as the "I Love…" series, where the new talking heads material is shot in 16:9, necessitating the archive footage that they are talking about to be cropped down to 16:9 as well.

This is annoying, but at least vaguely understandable, although many of us would have preferred to see the archive material shown in 4:3 within the widescreen frame.

However, this is nothing compared to the butchery with many broadcasters are now subjecting archive material too, as entire programmes are now being 'converted' to widescreen.

In many respects, this is the reverse of what used to happen when films were shown on television. Yet, as unpopular with some as panning and scanning is, it at least satisfies the majority of viewers by allowing the most important parts of the picture to be seen at the largest possible size.

Cropping 4:3 material appears to be down at the most basic level - the top and bottom of the picture are lopped off. The result is missing heads and incomplete captions, particularly when its used in conjunction with zooming the picture, giving rise to that well-known comedy duo “orecambe and Wis” or the 1970s news programme “ationwid”.

When it comes to children's programmes, the BBC believes that the programmes and the presentation are one and the same, and since the BBC doesn't believe in switching aspect ratios during a programme, everything must be shown in widescreen.

Just before Christmas 2002, CBBC repeated the classic 1980s series "The Box of Delights", the first time the episodic version had been shown for nearly two decades. Of course, the credits were squeezed into a tiny box, but even worse was the BBC's decision to broadcast it in a pseudo-widescreen format (presumably 14:9).

The BBC wasn't the only one to butcher a much-loved Christmas story in this way, as Channel 4's annual broadcast of "The Snowman" a couple of days later was also converted to widescreen.

BBC Four has also been guilty, with programmes as diverse as "The Ascent of Man" and a compilation of "Not Only But Also" (which was originally shown on BBC2 in its original 4:3), amongst others, being shown in 16:9 to the detriment of viewers.

Yet two previous examples of the entertainment industry trying to "upgrade" its material should have warned broadcasters that widescreenisation is a waste of time.

During the 1970s, the music industry embarked on a policy of "electronic" stereo, only to discover that record buyers preferred to listen to records in the original mono.

The following decade, the film industry decided to start colourising black and white films and, again, the originals were preferred to the newly created fake versions.

The folly of these was eventually learned, so there's really no excuse for television to continue with this practice.

It's time the industry made the effect to educate the general public about the benefits of widescreen instead of slavishly butchering existing material into 16:9.

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Article ©2003 Carl Ellis

Compilation ©2003 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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