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Using the Whole Screen
Written October 6, 2009


There’s an intriguing new development in our gradual transition to high-definition television.  Graphics, such as those I create, might be allowed to occupy previously taboo territory on the edges of the picture!

When I was taught TV in 1969, a graphics card looked like this “bumper” for a movie broadcast on a local station.  The text was restricted to only about half of the available space.

Why?  First of all, when the cameraman shot the card he didn’t want to accidentally shoot off the edge, so he framed for a little less than the whole area.

More importantly, the home viewer’s rounded picture tube could not show everything the cameraman shot.  The amount of “overscan” varied from set to set, but it was always present.

If Uncle Albert ever saw the image all the way to the bottom edge, he would summon his TV repairman and complain about the black line at the bottom of his picture.  The repairman would turn a knob on the back of the set to fill the picture tube by enlarging the image, thereby lopping off a bit more of it.

Let me dim the lights for this next section.

Twenty years later in 1989, TV picture tubes had become more nearly rectangular (gray border).   Nevertheless, within each edge of the image (solid blue line), we still allowed a 10% margin.  Text had to fit into the “title safe area” (dashed blue line).

We knew that some viewers, depending on the adjustment of their sets, might or might not see parts of the picture in the gray zone.  However, everybody — even Uncle Albert — should be able to read the titles in the safe area.

TV technology continued to improve.  Today, in 2009, there are flat screens that cut off very little of the image.  If everyone had a TV set like this, we could forget the safe area and locate our titles right next to the edge.

Also, many of these new screens are wider than the aspect ratio established for Thomas Edison's movies long ago, a width-to-height ratio of 4:3.  Today's high-definition (HD) viewers see a 16:9 image.

Unfortunately, conservative old Uncle Albert resists change, and he still watches his programs on the Fox News Channel in standard definition (SD).  On his little portable set, the 9-inch-high picture is only 12 inches wide, not 16.  How can we adapt our new HD pictures for viewers like him?

Method 1:  “Center-cut” the image.  Older sets receive only the center portion (blue) of the HD picture.  This is the way we currently televise most sporting events.  We can't show anything essential in the left and right “wings” (red), because not everyone can see them.

To ensure that even Uncle Albert can read our graphics, we have to confine them to the old title safe box, which is only 60% of the width of the HD screen.

Method 2:  Send the whole HD picture to the older sets, but first shrink it to fit within the blue 4:3 rectangle as shown below.  This “letterbox” technique leaves black horizontal bars at the top and bottom of Uncle Albert’s picture.  He starts grumbling again.  But he’ll have to get used to it, because Fox News Channel has decided to use this technique exclusively.

Now the entire viewing audience can see the entire picture.  And surprisingly, the all-the-way-to-the-edge HD graphics (red), when shrunk for letterboxing, fit rather neatly into the old set’s title safe area (dashed blue line)!

I described letterboxing in this earlier discussion.

According to Glen Dickson’s article in the September 28, 2009, Broadcasting & Cable, “It is logical to assume that a letterboxed version of Fox News Channel would result in a compromised experience for viewers on old 4:3 sets, including smaller text in graphic tickers.  But Fox executives say SD viewers will actually now see more. ... Fox News Channel was able to increase the size of its lower-third graphics and use larger text fonts.”

Actually, to me, on an HD screen the fonts now look too large.  But Dickson continues:

“To prove the concept, Fox created, in essence, a letterboxing lab on the third floor of its Manhattan headquarters, with a wall of flat-panel HDTV sets from various manufacturers alongside several old-school 4:3 tube TVs. ...

“‘It’s counterintuitive,’ admits Fox News Channel senior VP and creative director Richard O’Brien.  ‘You’d think on a 4:3 screen you’d be getting less, because it’s letterboxed.  But the way it’s designed, and the way you’re able to make use of the whole [height] of the screen now, you’re actually able to get more.  It’s hard to think that way until you see it, but when we did all the tests, it was a no-brainer that this was the right way to go.’” 

Well, perhaps it's not a no-brainer for everybody.  B&C heard from a local cable-company technician who'd had to deal with Uncle Albert.  “I took a call from a customer last night complaining about the letterboxing.  It had coincidentally happened after a service call where a set top box was replaced, and he thought it was the box.  He had actually gotten a tape measure out and measured the height of the bars and the new graphics.  I was able to explain to him it was Fox News Channel's decision to do that.  He indicated he would stop watching it.”

At last!  We've found a way to get Uncle Albert to stop watching those rabble-rousers Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck!

Anyway, let's go back to the original article.  Dickson concludes, “Fox’s widescreen shift may turn out to be a milestone in the gradual evolution from standard-definition to HDTV.  While broadcast networks like NBC and Fox have provided letterboxed versions of entertainment programming to standard-def viewers for years, Fox News Channel is the first U.S. cable news network to go fully widescreen for both HD and SD distribution.  If the new letterboxed version of the SD network is well-received, it may spur other cable networks to go the all-widescreen route, which Fox says delivers a better overall viewing experience and streamlines production workflows.”



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