We finally bit the bullet (with the help of our Recovery-Act-fueled welfare check tax “refund”) and bought a High Definition TV. One of the things that influenced this decision was that we were tired of being able to see only 2/3 of almost every show. (The other reason is that our old TV decided to do its best impression of a Spinal Tap drummer and spontaneously combust). Our local stations “center cut” rather than letterbox all HD programming for SD TVs (like our old one), which means both ends of the picture get cut off. Apparently they were getting too many complaints from people who said they didn’t like the “black bars” at the top and bottom of the screen. (Folks, no one is “putting black bars on the picture”: the black spaces are just empty spaces where there is no picture information.)
So, we brought home the HDTV from the big box store with the alliterative name. We left it in its box for three days to await the “expert” installation. Said “expert” installation consisted of two guys in gimme caps taking said television out of the box and plugging it in (and I paid $69.99 for that?). When they went to show me the picture, the first thing I noticed was:
Uh uh. I’m not doing Stretch-O-Vision. So I ask the “Geek” (who did not know enough to deserve that name) how to get rid of the distorted images. “If a picture is not HD in its native format, I’m not watching it stretched,” I said. “That is going to drive me crazy.” So the expert says, “Um, well, um, ah . . . Oh! Here’s a ‘Zoom’ button on the remote!” (I think he just discovered it at that moment.) “You can push this and change it from “normal” to “wide.” So I pushed the “Zoom” button. Only problem was, as soon as I changed to a channel that was actually in HD, the picture was pinched and I had to push the “Zoom” button a few more times to make the proportions right again. “Now that will really drive me crazy,” I said to the gimme-capped “expert.” “Is there no way,” I asked, “to set it to display the images in their original aspect ratios without pressing that button every time?” “Um, well, um, ah . . . .” was all Gimme Cap could say. Great!
After the “experts” left, I did a bunch of Googling and finally found what I needed to do. I had to change a setting on my cable box that was automatically stretching 4:3 aspect-ratio pictures to fit the 16:9 screen. Apparently the box was set to default to Stretch-O-Vision.
I don’t know what was more disconcerting: that my expert installer, for whom I waited for three days to work his expert installation magic on my new TV, didn’t know how to display pictures in their original aspect ratios, or that apparently no one had ever complained to him about Stretch-O-Vision!
A couple of days later I was channel-surfing and found that some of my new HD channels display their non-HD programming in Stretch-O-Vision in such a way that I have no control over it. Food Network HD, HGTV HD, TNT HD, and TBS HD seem to be the worst offenders in this regard. Take a look at this to see an example of what I’m talking about. If the channel was broadcasting these “Standard Definition” shows (hey wait, I thought HD was supposed to be the new standard) in their original aspect ratio of 4:3, so I could watch it undistorted (and with better resolution), that would still give the people who want their movies to look like the Sunday comics rendered in Silly Putty the option of pushing their “Zoom” button and watching freaky distorted images to their hearts’ content. But when these HD channels actually broadcast the image already stretched, there is little I can do. And no, the same thing doesn’t work in reverse. Using the “Zoom” button on a pre-stretched image doesn’t always result in normal proportions. It usually results in a squished image. While Alton Brown looks more like Paul Prudhomme in Stretch-O-Vision, he looks like a space alien in Squish-O-Vision.
It seems that the same people who complain about the “black bars” on a letterboxed image then go out and get an HD TV and, not having a clue about aspect ratios and such, then complain to their cable providers about the “black bars” on the left and right sides of the screen! “I paid good money for this big screen, and dang it you’d better gimme a picture that fills this screen.” So Stretch-O-Vision it is. Grrr.
The old, “standard definition” TV screen, the one with the 4:3 aspect ratio, was based on the dimensions of movie screens at the time of the invention of TV. The newer, “high definition” screen is based on the 16:9 aspect ratio of most of today’s movies. What if you went to see a movie, and the print of the film you were watching had the sides cut off each frame? Or what if the film had been stretched, resulting in a Silly-Putty image? Would you complain? Probably. Then why in the name of Sonja Henie’s tutu are so many of you out there watching, nay, demanding, Stretch-O-Vision on your TV?
Let’s go back to the movie theatre. When I was a child, the Alabama Theatre was the place to go for the top-notch movie experience in Birmingham, followed by the Ritz and the Empire. These were all old-time movie palaces, and each had a heavy, red velvet, gold-fringed curtain in front of the screen, just like the kind of stage curtain you’d see at a play. Heck, even the Plaza Theatre, in a strip shopping center, where we saw many movies, had such a curtain. The curtain would open right before the movie started. For older movies, the curtains would only open part of the way, because the picture size of those movies was smaller. For new movies, it would open even farther, and if the movie was in Panavision, Cinemascope, or Cinerama (the Plaza had a screen that could accomodate such films) the curtain would open up all the way, much to the delight of the audience. If it was a Disney movie, often the curtain would only open a little for the cartoon (since they were usually older and were made in the smaller aspect ratio) but then open wider for the feature (if it was a newer film). Everyone accepted this: pictures came in different sizes. Not every movie filled a Cinerama-sized screen, hence the curtain.
It’s the same with TV programming. If you have a screen capable of displaying today’s movies in their original aspect ratio–16:9–then when you watch something in the older aspect ratio–4:3–it’s not going to “fill the screen.” And if you watch a movie that was made for an even wider aspect ratio that your HD set (such as an IMAX feature), guess what? You’re going to see those “black bars” at the top and bottom of the screen. So what? Pictures come in different sizes. Deal with it.
I wrote an e-mail to Food Network HD today, asking them to get rid of Stretch-O-Vision. Sadly, I suspect if they did away with it, they’d get 1,000 times as many e-mails asking “Why doesn’t the picture fill my screen?” Again, grrr.
ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD, I have noticed, do not employ Stretch-O-Vision. If they are displaying a 4:3 image, they simply put “ESPN” vertically in the left and right borders of the screen. Because of their lack of Stretch-O-Vision, I have probably watched more basketball this week than I have watched in my entire lifetime.
Just say no to Stretch-O-Vision.