What's with all the Letterboxing?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The West Wing

. . . and others I’m sure. These shows are now all letterboxed. Is there a particular reason why? The best guess I can come up with is something to do with HDTV.


My guess is that it’s the same reason why the movie studios developed widescreen formats to begin with – a selling point to atract a bigger audience.

“Hey look at us! We have more picture, we’re better!”

Are there any tv’s yet in existence where the picture actually fills the entire screen, including the top and bottom? If not, then they don’t have a bigger picture.

According to the producers, the latest Star Trek series is being produced in letterbox format in preparation for “the advent of HDTV”. Sorry, no cite. It’s from a magazine.

HDTV screens have a ratio of 16x9, i.e. wider than regular TVs. Widescreen TV broadcasts are designed to fill this space, as are “enhanced widescreen” DVDs.

Not very many people have HDTV equipment yet, but the price has been coming down and they’ll be de rigeur in ten years or so. Shows like “E/R” and “Enterprise” (another letterboxer) know the real money is in syndication, so they want their product to be ready when the market changes.

Hence, they letterbox their shows now, even though the majority of viewers can’t get the full benefit, so that a few years down the line the re-runs will still look spiffy and modern rather than “old and square.”

I didn’t say bigger picture, I said more picture. Origianlly widescreen formats [and there are many] were designed so that more of the sceene could be shown [the stuff on the sides]. And it gave early movies a selling point over television.

Athough when they say “We’re getting ready for HDTV,” they should really be saing “We’re getting ready for widescreen TVs.” Because not all HDTV sets are widescreen.

Does this mean that some viewers are getting the full benefit?

Producing a show in letterbox is not the same as broadcasting it in letterbox. If they want to film it widescreen, fine. But then they should cut off the left and right sides so that the picture will fill older screens and be easier to see.

OTOH, if there are screens today which are totally filled by these pictures, then I have no complaint.

Unless there are some screens where these pictures fill up the whole screen, then it’s not really “more” picture, but it is less picture, because the tops and bottoms are cut off.

Maybe I’m missing something here. If the screen is not getting filled, then they are NOT widening the picture horizontally, they are shortening it vertically. Am I missing something?

I repeat my question: Are there widescreen tv’s today, on which these episodes fill the whole screen?

If the answer is “yes”, then I have no problem with the producers designing their product for that segment of the market. My problem is that if there is a black stripe at the top and bottom even on today’s widescreens, then I can’t understand why they don’t either (a) cut off the right and left sides so that the middle can be bigger, or (b) film the top and bottoms so that the screen will be full.

Keeve: Yes, in fact you are missing the entire point of letterboxing. Imagine taking a wide-screen picture and ZOOMING OUT so that it fits in a square (for the sake of argument) box. You get to see the whole image, but everything is a little smaller, and there’s no image on the top or bottom of the screen. This is what’s happening. Nothing is being cut off, the image is just being shrunk to fit on your TV, instead of having the sides cut off.

They COULD cut the sides off, but the problem with this is in the directing. Either you decide to use the sides for at least semi-important action/images, or you decide NOT to use them and disappoint everyone with a wide screen set, because the extra image is entirely pointless.

There are indeed wide-screen TV sets widely available now. Take a trip to your local consumer electronics store or even Sears to see several model available. They’re still a little pricy ($1500 up IIRC) but it’s coming down fast.

Yep. Wide screen TVs are on the market. Also, HDTV is already in existance in several markets; I know I have seen shows around here (Atlanta) which show a “Broadcast in HDTV!” logo at the start of the show.

No, I’m not missing the point. I clearly understand what you are saying. I never asked why there is blank space on my regular-size screen. My question has been how these shows appear on today’s wide-screen sets. Obviously, I have not stated my question clearly enough. Let’s try it again.

Suppose you are watching on a wide-screen tv, at a time when a wide-format show (“ER”, for example) is on one channel, and a regular-format show (Local News, for example) is on another channel. Now, while watching the news, you take some adhesive tape, and put it on the screen at the edges of the broadcast image. You have now defined the borders of what is being broadcast. The tv knows to leave blank space at the left and right sides of the screen.

Now, you switch from the News to “ER”. Does the broadcast image remain within the borders of the adhesive tape because that is what is being broadcast? (That would be stupid, because it would end up with blank space on all four sides, but maybe that’s the limits of today’s technology.) Or does TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY allow the tv to recognize the fact that this broadcast is in “letterbox” format, and that it must expand the image to fill the entire wide screen, from top to bottom, and left to right?

This is really no different than my previous posts, where I asked



For the record, there are several posts here which give me the clear impression that the letterbox format does not yet fill today’s wide-screen sets, and is only in preparation for some future point when they will. These posts include wolfstu:

and Cervaise:


Yes, there are widescreen [16:9] TVs today that can take that image and expand it to fill the entire screen. But, it’s a feature of the TV [I wouldn’t be surprised if some cheaper TVs couldn’t do it], and it doesn’t exactly yield the greatest picture. Here’s why:

The camera recording an ER scene is creating a widescreen image [I haven’t seen it, but my guess is that it’s 1:1.85]. Before that image gets to your TV it’s letterboxed [black bars added to the top and bottom]. If you watch that signal on a 16:9 set, the TV will normal windowbox [add black bars to the sides] that picture. Some sets have the ability to realize that they’re windowboxing a letterboxed image and can be set to expand the image to fill the screen. The problem is that the set can’t add resolution to the image, so you wind up with a picture that’s bigger but has the same resolution, and that equals crappy.

The way around this problem is to broadcast the image without any letterboxing. I’m guessing that HDTV broadcasts can allow you to do this.

I think FDISK was refering to this statement you made:

The tops and bottoms aren’t “cut off,” there was never anything there to begin with. It really is more picture because the field of view is wider, but the whole thing has to be made smaller in size to fit on standard TVs.

I just bought a wide screen HDTV a month or so ago. I can tell you how mine works, and based on my buying research this is pretty much how they all work.

For a regular (4:3 ratio) broadcast…
I can set my TV to three different settings…
a) normal… where the image is in the center of the widescreen, with gray vertical bars on each side (this essentially turns my widescreen TV into a normal 4:3 ratio TV).
b) stretched… where the image is elongated horizontally to fit the full width of the screen (this distorts the image a bit, but I get used to it quite quickly).
c) full… where the normal 4:3 image is expanded both horizontally and vertically to fill the width of the screen (however, in this case, a little of the image at the top and bottom are truncated and can’t be seen… a real bitch when watching news or sports where there is a “ticker” running along the bottom of the image).

For a letterbox broadcast…
I still have the same options on my TV as described above, with slightly different results.
a) normal… I now would see gray bars on each side and black bars at the top and bottom.
b) stretched… fills the width of the screen but still has the black bars at top and bottom
c) full… perfect… the letterbox image fills the full screen with no loss of image either at the top or bottom, and no gray or black filler anywhere.

For DVDs…
Depends on the ratio of the DVD… if it’s a 16:9 ration then it fits perfectly, but I’ve found that DVDs are produced in many different width:height ratios and depending on the ratio will determine whether or not there are any black bars at the top and bottom.

Note that (with my TV anyway) none of this is automatic. The TV is not smart enough to yet change the settings depending on whether or not the broadcast is letterbox or normal.
Hope this is helpful…

My wife has finally allowed me to go nuts and do a home theater setup at home. As a result I have been delving into the strange world of HDTV and the quick answer to all of this is it is confusing as hell. There are 17 different formats technically supported in the HDTV specifications set out by our government (most HDTV’s out today only support some subset of those 17).

A letterboxed image is not necessarily an HDTV image. In the case of ER, Enterprise and others the signal may still be a ‘normal’ NTSC signal for 4:3 ratio, interlaced televisions.

So why the black lines above and below the image? On a 16:9 ratio HDTV set a standard broadcast 4:3 image will show-up in the middle of the TV with black (or sometimes gray) bars running up the right and left side of the TV. If you have ER on you will also see their letterboxing and get the bars above and below the image as well.

However, most HDTVs are pretty smart. Being digital they can stretch the image to fill the entire screen right to left and top to bottom. There are a few methods for doing this and some sets even support multiple methods. If you just stretch the image the picture will look like hell (you may remember seeing some movies broadcast on regular, 4:3, TV’s where instead of letterboxing they just squished everything in giving people a thin and long appearance…this is the reverse of that). To avoid making the image look like crap the HDTV, when it expands the 4:3 image to fill the 16:9 screen, will slice off a little of the top and bottom of the picture. Sometimes this isn’t noticeable but if you are watching (say) news that has a scrolling info bar at the bottom or sports that have score info in the corners you’ll see that sliced off…also pretty annoying.

So, while ER and Enterprise may not be broadcasting an HDTV signal they are ‘pre-slicing’ the top and bottom off so when an HDTV expands the image in this fashion the whole picture fills the screen and you lose nothing and everything looks great.

BTW: In addition to a 4:3 image sitting in the center of a 16:9 screen looking annoying with the bars on the right and left side it is actually bad for the TV. If too much TV is watched in that fashion the phosphors in the center of the screen are getting a harder workout than those on the side and eventually you can get burn-in of the middle of the screen…not good on your $2,000+ TV. As a result 16:9 HDTV owners (there are 4:3 HDTVs out there as well) will try and expand the image whenever possible to avoid this problem.

Why would anyone get a 16:9 set at this point with so little prograsmming to support them? Besides DVDs being able to take advantage of the 16:9 ratio eventually (supposedly by 2006) all broadcasts will be in HDTV or at least formatted for them so everything will be letterboxed on 4:3 sets while filling the screens on 16:9 sets.

Servo and algernon, I thank you. That’s exactly the info I was looking for.

Babylon 5 started filming in widescreen in 1992 to prepare for HDTV. Now that is preparation.

You’re welcome Keeve.

Whack-a-Mole a slight nitpick:

They’re not cutting anything off from the top and bottom. They’re adding to the left and right. I’m sorry, this is just a huge pet peeve of mine. This is one of the reasons people still like to watch ::shudder:: pan & scan versions of movies. They see the black bars and they think they’re missing something. You’re getting to see more than the same movie that’s been “edited to fit your screen.” More is say! More!

But, at the risk of adding to the confusion, there are some sneaky directors who use a technique called “Soft Matting” which actually results in the widescreen version of a movie having less image than the 4:3 version. But I’ll reserve that subject for my first pit thread. ;]

Sorry…that was just sloppy language/explaining on my part. I am quite aware that nothing is being ‘cut’ but rather they are merely changing the screen size ratio (height vs. width).

I’m with you on the pan-n-scan versions of movies. Almost all of my friends prefer that because, “It fills the screen and that must be better!” I’ve seen a few examples of pan-n-scan vs. letterbox and the difference can be huge. IIRC it was a clip of Casablanca where Bogart and Bergman were talking. In the letterbox format both were on screen at once and you could instantly see the reactions of one actor as the other was talking. The pan-n-scan version had to cut back and forth and the loss of chemistry (as sensed by the audience) between the actors in that case was very noticeable.

I will say, however, that most movies filmed today are done so with TV in mind. The director makes sure all the relevant action fits into a smaller box in the center of the viewfinder so nothing important gets cut in the transition to TV. The stuff at the sides usually ends up just being filler.

There is another aspect.(not ratio)

They may be letterboxed for regular NTSC broacast but that doesn’t mean that they have not also been prepared for HDTV broadcasts in the near future.

The norm for storage in some stations is DigitalBeta Tapes, you’ll recognize it when somebody screws up and suddenly you see pixilation in the picture. I’m sure there are full HDTV versions of the same programs also on digital tape (in all their glory including the higher number of lines of resolution and contrast). I’m sure those will be used once HDTV becomes the Norm.

Remember When we switched from B/W to colour there were a few shows that taped in colour but were broadcast in B/W. This is more complicated so there will be more than one Broadcast standard for a while.