(Project 365 Day 176)
I took a picture of this TV in B J's Restaurant & Brewhouse because it's the first time I've ever seen a public HDTV display regular TV in pillarboxed format instead of distorted/stretched format. I was impressed. Details below:
So traditional TVs have an aspect ratio of 4:3. When you watch a movie on a normal TV, it's sometimes presented in "letterboxed" widescreen, which means you see the full picture as originally intended, with black empty spaces above and below the picture. Other times it's presented "pan & scan", where they crop the sides off of the image to fit your TV, customizing the cropping based on what makes sense for each shot. (The marketers love to call this "full screen", even though it actually means you're missing parts of the picture.) People used to get confused by letterboxing, wondering if parts of the picture are cut off, etc, but I think almost everyone understands it these days. In fact, some TV shows being shot for HDTV even broadcast in letterboxed format on normal TV these days. Which brings us to...
HDTVs have an aspect ratio of 16:9, which is wider than normal TV. This presents a bit of a problem when you're watching normal TV. To get the full picture, you would have empty spaces on the sides of the screen. (It's called "pillarboxing".) This presents two problems: (1) People aren't as comfortable about blank areas on the sides of their screen as they are about blank areas on the top and bottom. I think part of it is that people don't want to feel like they're wasting display area on their expensive HDTV. :P (2) Plasma TVs, the most common type of flat screen HDTVs, suffer from burn-in, such that if you leave the sides of the screen black and keep displaying stuff in the middle, the middle eventually turns a different shade from the sides.
To solve the second problem, plasma TVs usually come with gray bars (which will burn in the TV just as much as the rest of the image, on average, kind of an "I am Spartacus" way of damaging all the pixels equally so nothing stands out). That's what you see here. The problem, though, is that gray bars are even more ugly and annoying than black bars.
So then you really only have two options: You could ruthlessly crop off the top and bottom of the screen and fill the screen with the middle. Unfortunately, it's not logistically feasible to manually pan & scan every TV show, not to mention that movies are usually shot with pan & scanning in mind, whereas TV is not. So this usually cuts off important information and isn't very feasible. You could also simply distort and stretch the 4:3 image so it fills the whole 16:9 screen.
Who would want to spend $2000+ on a fancy new TV and watch most of their programming extra fat, as if it were on stretched-out silly putty? The answer: Almost everyone! I'd say about 90% of the time I see an HDTV, it's showing non-HD standard TV programming in stretched mode. I admit that the stretched images are not quite as annoying as you might expect, because our brains compensate for it to some degree, but I'm still baffled that this is the norm.
Anyway, this is why I'll never get a plasma HDTV. I don't want to watch my shows stretched, and I don't want those ugly gray bars, either. I'm waiting for LCD HDTV prices to come down before getting one of those. LCDs don't have that burn-in problem, so they can use black bars on the sides, which is far less annoying.
Still, I think I definitely prefer the gray bars to watching stretched images, and so I applaud B J's Restaurant and Brewhouse for giving us undistorted TV!
The ironic thing is that I didn't care at all about what was actually on TV there. :)