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An irreverent history of the rise of Widescreen TV

In the beginning, before TV ruled the living room, bedroom, office reception etc. there was cinema. Man looked at the cinema screen and he was pleased – even if there wasn’t any sound to go with the jerky black & white moving pictures – organists were kept very busy. These silent films were projected at a ratio of four units wide to three units tall, often expressed as 4:3 or 1.33:1 (also known as Academy Ratio).

In 1927 the soundtrack was introduced and talking films were born. How the audience were delighted. But these black & white films with their fancy soundtracks didn’t keep the punters coming in to the cinema.

By 1935 the film studios had made some colour films - Oh how the faces in the audience lit up with rainbow Technicolor awe. But these happy days did not last for the big cheeses at the studios. Soon there was to be a new threat - In the form of television sets for the home.

TV sets in the home? It’ll never catch on.

The first broadcasts by the BBC were made in 1937, initially to a few hundred but soon to many more. The pictures were broadcast in the same 1.33:1 ratio as films because that was what people expected.

With fewer people visiting the cinemas around the world and the impending threat of colour TV broadcasting, something had to be done - so in 1952 the film studios decided to reveal their secret weapon – a wider screen. It was to prove their saviour. Films were made in 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 formats and it was also recognised that these wider formats were easier to watch due to the wide angle of vision that we all have.

The green outline on this image indicates the standard 4:3 Academy Ratio that became the main format of TV broadcasts in the early days.

The red and blue outlines indicate widescreen formats.

TV ratios

So we skip forward a few years of little innovation. Sure there was the emergence of computers and other stuff like that – until the 1990’s when someone in the TV world decided that he too wanted to deliver a slice of the widescreen pie to homes around the world – and thus widescreen broadcasting began.

True widescreen broadcasts are able to display more picture at the sides of the image as these pictures show:

16:916:9 on 4:3

Notice how the top widescreen image on the left is seen cropped on a 4:3 screen - with the clock edges being cut off - and the logo has less space too. This is why sometimes captions and graphics are off the edges.

An explanation of the black bars that appear on your TV

16:9 picture on a 4:3 screen

Now if a widescreen picture is displayed on a non-widescreen television you will see black lines at the top and bottom of the picture.

4:3 picture on a 16:9 screen

And non-widescreen pictures on a widescreen television means you will get black bars on the sides of the picture – not exactly good value for your license fee!

So how do you keep everyone happy all of the time?

14:9 broadcast on a 4:3 screen 14:9 broadcast on a 16:9 screen

To keep everyone ‘sweet’, broadcasters decided on a ‘half-way house’ screen ratio of 14:9 – which means that everyone gets thinner bars on their screens – unless you have a modern television that magically resizes the picture for you.

The Future

So now that we have widescreen broadcasts at home, with high definition broadcast pictures just around the corner, the question is will we soon need wider eyes?

Chris O'Brien | 14.04.2006