How Would You Like 4:3 Content On Your 16:9 TV?

Dave Zatz —  December 17, 2007


NewTeeVee has an interesting piece up discussing why (and how) some television networks stretch 4:3 content to fill 16:9 screens. Given the sheer quantity of 4:3 content produced over the years, it’s not surprising this is an issue as folks upgrade to widescreen 16:9 television sets. NewTeeVee speculates that stretching is to efficiently simulcast SD and HD programming. However, A&E and TBS (who both stretch) say the decision is consumer-based.


CNBC HD has implemented the best solution by surrounding their 4:3 SD simulcast with supplemental HD content. This obviously wouldn’t work on every network and with all content, but it’s a novel decision until they upgrade their gear.

I prefer that programming is broadcast in its original aspect ratio allowing me to selectively choose amongst the various stretch and zoom modes offered by my HDTVs and TiVos. Or to leave it be. However, I understand A&E and TBS choosing to stretch 4:3 content to fill the screen… There’s already enough HD and digital TV confusion out there – I’d rather not have to explain to my mom why she has black bars. They’re probably not interested in answering that question either or paying to settle some burn-in class action lawsuit.

Incidentally, as a plasma owner skittish about burn-in (real or imagined) and distracted by black (or grey) bars, I’m still trying to figure out how to zoom or stretch 1.85:1 and 2.40:1 HD DVD content to fill my 16:9 screen. I’m willing to make that particular trade of minimal distortion and lower resolution to protect my set.

So, what’s your preference?

28 responses to How Would You Like 4:3 Content On Your 16:9 TV?

  1. OAR all the way.


  2. You seriously consider that to be minimal distortion?

  3. There are few things I hate more then seeing everyone with strange distorted heads. My favorite shows become populated by aliens.

    I definitely prefer they broadcast in 4:3 and leave me the choice. But clearly us folk reading your blog are pretty technical, and the wider audience out there would probably be pretty clueless about what was going on.

  4. I would prefer they leave it in 4:3 or at worst go the CNBC route.

  5. I would prefer it be left in 4:3 OR do it the CNBC way. Better yet, give us the HD we deserve :)

  6. rick,

    Yes, if it’s transmitted in the original aspect ratio, then that is “minimal distortion”. If someone then wants to have their TV stretch it or accept the undistorted image, that’s up to them.

    So, if the channel is an HD channel (16:9) and they are showing a subject that was originally in 4:3, then they should send it in 4:3. Most HDTV’s have the ability to stretch or zoom as it is and thus the viewer can corrupt the image themselves if they so desire.

    Just one mans opinion. :)


  7. Rick, stretching or zooming widerER screen to wide screen (16:9) doesn’t upset me much. As it stands I can’t find that feature on the HD DVD player, so it’s a non issue. 4:3 -> 16:9 is a bigger issue for me (though I often do it or see it) — emphasizing Brent’s point that we need all original 16:9 HD, all the time! It’s too bad shows like BSG were filmed that way, but very few folks get to enjoy it.

  8. I hate, HATE, it when networks stretch 4:3 programming. I simply refuse to watch any content that’s stretched. I’ll take black bars all day, thank you very much.

  9. Yeah, boo to stretching. I know a lot of people who do that, and I never understand why. Maybe they just don’t know how to use their TVs.

  10. I prefer that they broadcast the content in the original format, yes, and let me decide what to do with it. However… what I’m going to decide is generally going to be “stretch-o-vision” if they’re sending 4:3 with sidebars or letterboxed content. (Different stretch depending.)

    I find that my Sony HDTV does an excellent job of stretching such that most of the 4:3 content looks great. They stretch very little in the center, and more towards the edges, so mostly what’s being focused on looks fine. Unfortunately, the TiVo HD doesn’t do nearly as good a job; I think it’s just a linear stretch. But it’s a lot easier.

  11. Yeah, wtf is up with that? I was at a friends house and they have Comcast, which they pay a fortune for. I was monkeying around with the remote and clicked on “HD content”…

    …5 stations. Two of which were 4:3 with big graphics surrounding the content making it fill the 16:9 shaped TV screen.

  12. I prefer it be sent in 4:3, but I stretch all 4:3 content anyway. I really find I don’t notice it after about 30 seconds.

  13. I am also anti-stretching. Changing the aspect is pretty simple for most TVs. I have always been a bit perplexed as to why they would go to the trouble to do that to begin with.

  14. Leave 4:3 alone. I wont stretch it cuz I can tell people are short and fat and circles are ovals. Progressive stretch is really messed up when the camera scans and people get skinny then fat again.

  15. OAR. I’ll stretch it if I want to, but I can’t un-stretch a stretched signal.


  16. Amen Dave! I was so disappointed to learn that my new HD channels on Comcast (A&E & TBS) were unwatchable as it felt like I was watching the show through a fun-house mirror. Even the movies they show are 4:3 stretched instead of showing the widescreen version. Our TVs have the option to stretch the show, so why force us to have it stretched? 4:3 (Original Aspect Ratio) forever!

  17. I am also anti-stretching. If I wanted to see an extra fat actor I can have my TV do the stretching for me.
    I want the networks to let me decide if I want to stretch or not.

  18. To me, stretching video is (almost) as bad as the colorization that Turner was doing to classic B&W films. Leave it the way it came and let the viewer decide.

    My girlfriend had bought an HD set about a year before I met her. She had everything stretched and thought that was the way it had to be. When she saw real HD on my setup, she said, “I wondered why everybody looked so funny.”

  19. I’m in the OAR camp with everyone else — leave the content alone. Especially since my TV lets me stretch or zoom a 480i/p picture, but it won’t let me “squish” a stretched HD picture.

    The one thing I don’t want to see happen is the extra space turned into an advertising bar. I probably shouldn’t put this on the internet because some executive, somewhere, scared to death of TiVos and “teh internets,” will find this in a Google search and think it’s a brilliant idea. But we’re assaulted enough with advertising on a regular basis, I don’t need it constantly in the corner while I watch my Friends reruns.

    And Dave — you’re not going to be able to crop an extra-wide DVD without losing a ton of picture or distortion just as bad as 4:3 stretch, so you should try to get over your burn-in phobia. My understanding is current-gen plasmas aren’t very much more likely to burn-in than good ol’ CRTs, and I was watching letterboxed VHS tapes and DVDs for years on several CRT sets with no picture degredation at all.

  20. I’ll be the lone nut in favor of stretching.

    It doesn’t bother me because most SD content already looks less-than-stellar on a large display.

    I’d vote for leaving it in OAR and letting the user decide, tho.

  21. Well, as my current TV lets me do whatever I want with HD content, I’m OAR. However, I did actually read the NewTeeVee article (did anybody else) and the networks have a point… people complained about the black bars, some early plasmas did burn in because of them, when they sampled people they prefered the stretched version, and since the content isn’t HD anyway, you can just record the SD version if you want to play with it on a more recent set…

    The only problem I can see with that is (a) I can’t always tell ahead of time whether something I’m going to record is really HD or not, so I’ll probably just record the HD version assuming its the one I want, meaning if they already stretched it its too late for me to go back and get the SD version
    (b) the SD and HD channels don’t always have the same content on at the same time

    Personally I would LOVE to have a big animated “Sponsored by X” logo on both sides of the 4:3 image to keep me occupied. I don’t know what everybody else doesn’t like about it.

  22. Give it to me in the OAR. I can strech if I want to (which I don’t do unless it has bars at the top already (i.e. widescreen but in 4:3))

  23. I prefer OAR. The thought of trying to watch a show with ad content on screen all of the time is horrifying.

  24. Count me in the OAR camp. I personally detest a stretched (distorted) image. Like a previous commenter, I’ll sometimes zoom a “windowboxed” image but, that’s about it. Even the “smart” stretching (less distortion in the center; more towards the edges) annoys me.

  25. My vote is for OAR. I’ve done enough work with video to notice even the slightest stretch or squish of a picture. I don’t mind the black bars as much as I mind someone making assumptions on my behalf.

  26. For the life of me I don’t understand those who watch the stretched images (4:3 stretched to 16:9). But, when the so called HD channels on some networks already stretch the broadcast—it’s off the sensibility RADAR Screen.

    Some HD stations pan and scan a 4:3 format so it shows minimal black bars on the side(to about a 1:66 ratio)—but you can easily tell some of the frame on bottom and top are gone.

  27. There’s a flaw with your idea. When TBS recodes their 4:3 shows to 16:9, it’s true hi-def. When you stretch your hidef 4:3 to 16:9, it loses quality.

    Thats why TBS is the best. You get full screen TV as the highest possible quality. Not to mention having to click the fucking remote very 15 seconds.