Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Ripoff of Widescreen TV Sports

Today let's take a break to explore a serious issue: the giant fan ripoff of sports broadcasts on widescreen TVs. You're going to need a little bit of math sense and a bit of common sense to follow this, but the pictures help a lot. Watching sports is a big reason why guys purchase big widescreen high-definition TV sets. But the fact is: no TV sporting event on any major network is being shot to take advantage of the wider screen. Here's a sneak peek of what I mean:

See those black vertical lines I've drawn? They define the extra space you get with a widescreen TV set. As you can see above, in the standard baseball shot from the center field camera, the extra space on the sides (it's mathematically one quarter of that pricey wide screen you've paid for) is useless. They show a few bums in the crowd. This isn't just about baseball or ESPN. It's ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Comcast, Versus. They intentionally leave 1/4 of the screen pretty vacant. The practice has a name: "center-cut protection." It's meant to ensure sure that millions of older TV sets that aren't wide don't miss any action. Here's another example -- I've got a million:

Congratulations on buying your fancy new widescreen TV set. Now you get to see the ball boy.

Most new TVs sold these days are HDTVs in the widescreen aspect ratio called 16-by-9. It's a reasonable estimate that Americans will have spent $100 billion on widescreen TVs by the end of this year. Yeah, $100 billion. That's bailout kind of bucks. I base this estimate on data supplied by the Consumer Electronics Association that shows U.S. digital TV sales reaching about $85 billion wholesale from 2003 to 2008.

A lot of people think that widescreen TVs are bigger. Actually they are just a different shape. In fact, at any given diagonal measurement -- say 37 inches -- a 16-by-9 widescreen has less screen area than a traditional 4-by-3 TV. That's just basic geometry. Pythagoras was doing this stuff years ago. It's just a different shape. The question is: how do you use this new-shape frame to depict the world? Is it even an improvement?

Wider screens are great for movies, which are filmed wider. And the promise was that widescreen TV would deliver new ways of looking at sports: you could have a quarterback way over here on the left and a receiver way over there on the right. Cool! But no.

You just get the standard shot, framed the standard way, with essentially blank space on the sides. This isn't going to change soon, because millions of 4-by-3 TV sets aren't going away soon. Even if the "Digital Transition" of television signals isn't delayed past its planned February 17 date (a delay now seems likely), the federal government has spent $1.34 billion to help people buy converter boxes that will keep 4-by-3 TV sets in wide use for a long time.

Which means TV sports producers really aren't even thinking about new ways to frame shots to take advantage of wide screen. Think about it: the ideal tennis shot on widescreen TV might not be the usual overhead from one end of the court. It might be a panoramic overhead shot from the side. Basketball is tougher. Much of the game is played half-court, the players aligned in a square box. Would there ever be an advantage to a wider-angle shot of basketball?

Hey, at least in this one, widescreen viewers get to see the other 3/4s of the referee.


OpenID BigGreenMonster said...

I'm guessing you guys aren't really that into sports... The extra space DOES matter greatly to feeling like you're part of the action, even if there's not a whole lot going on at any given moment.

Think about it this way, when you attend a live event, even though you're probably focused on exactly what is being shown on TV (the batter's box, the line of scrimmage, the hoop) you're actually seeing alot more stuff. That extra information is worthwhile and additive even if isn't necessary vital.

Also, for football games, the extra few inches tell you alot more about the formations on each play.

I don't think you'll find a single real sports fan that agrees with your opinion here.

January 13, 2009 10:49 AM  
Blogger qixx said...

People usually buy a HDTV for the better resolution more than the wider aspect ratio. but even the examples you have chosen show "extra" space in you 4:3 shot. this shows that the networks don't take full advantage of the 4:3 ratio. a closer zoom of the action most would fit a 16:9 ratio better (look at wasted space at the top of bottom of the 4:3 boxes).

January 13, 2009 10:51 AM  
Blogger don said...

Valid points (except about not having experience in sports). But you gotta admit it will be better when sports camera operators and directors are allowed to fill the full wide space with real stuff rather than marginalia.

January 13, 2009 12:08 PM  
Blogger Josh S said...

Please bear in mind that a "Standard TV" NTSC signal (the color signal that, up until recently, you would pull out of the air for free,) has 486 lines of data. A lower resolution HD signal has 720 lines of data. Even slicing the sides off that HD signal, you're still seeing more than twice the number of pixels that you'd see in the standard signal, and likely double the frame rate. So lets not poo-poo the HD TVs too much.

I'd get more worked-up about the compression artifacts in the digital cable signals. I'd take a standard signal over HD if it meant a blue sky could be nice and smooth instead of blocky and noisy around the edges.

April 28, 2009 12:19 PM  
Blogger don said...

Josh you miss the point. You could do high-def in a 4-by-3 screen. That's an entirely separate issue. This is about the using the full frame in a wide screen camera shot.

October 13, 2009 8:51 AM  

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