No compromise 

24 May 2004

The 14:9 compromise between widescreen and ‘ordinary’ television doesn’t work, says Mike Brown.

I have had digital widescreen television for almost 2 years now and after much consideration I have come down firmly against the broadcasters use of the 14:9 aspect ratio.

Simplistically one might argue that there are no television screens made in that shape so why should pictures be transmitted that way, but there is rather more to it than that.

Traditionally television pictures have had a shape defined by the aspect ratio 4:3 or 12:9. This means that for every 3 units the picture is high it is four units wide.

Widescreen television pictures have an aspect ratio of 16:9, and very nice they look too, but if a broadcaster is making and transmitting pictures that shape, what are viewers who do not or cannot watch them that way to see?

Some of those who fall into this category have a digital set-top box but not a widescreen television. In this case the box provides two options: either to see the whole picture ‘letterboxed’ (with black bars at top and bottom) or to see a centre-cut-out of the widescreen picture (and miss the extra ‘widescreen’ areas at the sides). The first of these options may please people who have large enough sets, while the second option is better suited to those with smaller screens.

A larger, but decreasing, number of people without widescreen are those still watching the analogue services. Broadcasters usually choose to transmit widescreen programmes on analogue at a compromise aspect ratio of 14:9.

This means these viewers can see a little more of the picture, hinting at its true widescreen glory and imposing only a reduced letterbox effect. Broadcasters argue that this option is the best of both worlds and produces few complaints.

As is the way with compromises there are alternative views and mine is that this is the worst of both worlds. Filling the analogue picture with a centre-cut-out would please more viewers and produce no complaints!

Broadcasters’ justification for using 14:9 in this way is that it allows them more creative freedom in framing (composing) their widescreen pictures, but in practice I don’t see it as being a significant factor. When push comes to shove, with detail like weather maps and other graphics, they always compose pictures that are 4:3 safe anyway. Other matters are artistic niceties, which broadcasters have never worried much about before, when screening widescreen feature films, for example.

Widescreen programmes should not be shown 14:9 on analogue. If this has a deleterious effect on a few programmes then so be it but, generally speaking, people do not miss what they cannot see. If any viewers should begin noticing that they are missing something, let that be an incentive for them to equip themselves to receive digital widescreen. They will then also be able to receive entire free-to-view channels that they are also ‘missing’.

If only that were the end of the subject, but unfortunately it isn’t, because not content with inflicting 14:9 on viewers to analogue services, they have also found a way of inflicting it on every viewer. All too often this happens when 4:3 material is to be shown as part of a new widescreen programme or sequence of programmes.

At the moment UK broadcasters are suffering from what I call ‘widescreenitis’. They are not only trying to make as much widescreen material as possible but are actively trying to re-write history and apparently deny that any other picture format ever existed. It has now become standard practice to zoom in on 4:3 material – whether it was recorded fifty years ago or yesterday – and show it to all viewers with an aspect ratio of… yes… 14:9.

This results in the loss of the top and bottom areas of the picture and means the tops of people’s heads are cut-off and any graphics (e.g. football scores) are almost lost too. Not only do we see less of the picture but we also see a reduced quality, rather fuzzy picture as a result of the complex conversion process (known as ‘aspect ratio conversion’ or ARCing).

It should be a no-brainer. Old 4:3 pictures should be shown as just that, but one of the arguments against this is that when the programme is shown at 14:9 on the analogue services the 4:3 picture would ‘float’ within the 4:3 screen.

This seems to be nothing more than an entirely specious circular argument. 14:9 is a standard the broadcasters have invented and imposed on themselves, no one is forcing them to use it. There is actually nothing to stop all programmes being shown full-screen on the analogue services and then there would be no problem assimilating 4:3 material into new programming.

One area of broadcasting does consistently avoid the degradations caused by 14:9, and that is the BBC Sport department who are thankfully proving my assertion that things can be done this way, and very successfully too.

I assert that the introduction of the 14:9 aspect ratio is the worst thing to happen to television programmes ever. It is degrading otherwise excellent pictures and holding back its future progress. It should be abandoned forthwith and as the number of viewers to the analogue services declines the argument for its use becomes steadily less sustainable.

The material currently being most seriously affected by this dreadful 14:9 syndrome is

  • Most news coverage not sourced by UK-based camera teams
  • Most regional news programmes
  • Almost all BBC children’s programmes
  • Compilation series such as I Love 19xx

It’s time to stop 14:9.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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