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What is widescreen TV?
"What is widescreen TV, and why do I need it?" is a question often asked when someone is looking for a new TV for home theatre use. The answer is partially based on your viewing habits. But before we get ahead of ourselves, some explanation is in order.

The term aspect ratio is defined as the ratio of the width of a TV to the height. Standard TVs as we know them have had an aspect ratio of 1.333 to 1 or often is expressed as 4:3. Widescreen or HDTV aspect ratio is 1.78 to 1, or 16x9.

Originally, movies shown in theaters had the same aspect ratio as standard TVs, the 4X3. However, in the 1950’s when watching TV at home started to be more and more popular, the movie studios were concerned that their audience numbers were down. To combat this, and get people back in the theater, they conceived of a wider, more panaramic view to differentiate movies from TV shows. Terms such as "Cinemascope" and "Panavision" were coined to bring viewer awareness to the new concept.

Now, if you think about it, this was a very good idea. More people did go to the movie theaters. However, at some point many of the movies were shown on broadcast channels on TV. Of course, the question now is "How do you fit a widescreen movie onto a standard screen TV?"

The normal solution is called "pan and scan". The next time you play a movie on VHS or from CBS for example, pay close attention to the disclaimer at the beginning of the program. It will say, in effect, that "the following movie has been edited to fit your TV screen".

Let’s assume two actors in the original version of the movie are on opposite sides of the screen, and begin talking to each other. On the "pan and scan" version, the camera will be on the one who is talking, and then slowly "pan" across when the other actor begins talking. This is done by refilming using a camera on the original film stock.

Depending on the particular scene, we may miss out on action in places that are no longer visible to us. Also, this is not how the director intended the film to be viewed.

One solution to this is called "letterboxing", where on a 4X3 "normal" TV, you will see the entire frame of the film, but you will see black bars above and below the picture. Many DVDs enable you to show either this or a pan and scan version.

By playing this type of DVD movie on a widescreen 16X9 TV, you will see the entire movie without the black bars, or reduce the black bars to a much more tolerable level. Keep in mind, this is also the format used for HDTV.

In conclusion, if your viewing habits are such that you watch a lot of "regular" type TV programs, news, sitcoms, dramas and even sports, then a 4X3 normal aspect ratio TV is just fine. If you are going to watch a lot of DVD movies, and would like to be able to switch to HDTV in a few years, then a 16X9 widescreen probably is the way to go.

Greg Thill
M.E.S. Home Theatre

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