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Widescreen TVs Get the Bends

Widescreen TVs are everywhere. Unfortunately, a lot of them are displaying non-widescreen images that are glaringly, unnaturally, unnervingly bent out of shape. The worst part is that many folks just don?t seem to notice?or if they do notice, they don?t care.

If you got a third wider overnight, wouldn?t you lay off the beer? If the tires on your car suddenly turned from circles to ovals, wouldn?t the ride get a bit bumpy? Misshapen people and objects would turn daily life into a surreal nightmare. Yet when that nightmare is onscreen, some people just accept it.

Frankly, that drives me insane. If I walk into a store to be confronted by walls of widescreen sets displaying stretched images, it makes me want to grab the manager by the throat and yell what do you think you?re doing here?

I happen to like widescreen displays. The fact that our newly digitized television standard has gone wide is just as important as the fact that it?s gone high-def.

Widescreen images have an epic sweep that makes movies come alive. Filmmakers and movie buffs have known this since the 1950s when the first widescreen movies hit the silver screen. The body of widescreen material has been growing for half a century, and now we can enjoy it at home, seeing as it was meant to be seen?as the filmmakers intended.

Home theater has always accommodated widescreen images though it?s taken awhile for the technology to trickle down. When I first started to write about home theater, during the Reagan era, only the most upscale installations went wide. Usually these were dedicated rooms served by giant tube-based front-projection systems with separate screens. As custom installers got slicker, the screens acquired motorized masking to adapt them to various screen shapes.

How much wider is widescreen TV? About a third wider. Normal TV?to be more precise, the outgoing analog standard?has an aspect ratio of 4:3. The incoming digital standard is 16:9. In common denominators, we?ve gone from from a width-to-height ratio of 1.33 to 1 to a more elongated 1.78 to 1. Some super-widescreen movies such as Spartacus, in Cinemascope, go as high as 2.35 to 1.

Owning a different set for every aspect ratio would be a pain in the neck and not everyone can afford a front-projection system with motorized masking. DTVs solve the problem with blank bars that enable the full width and height of the image to be seen without cropping or stretching. A 16:9 set uses bars at the sides to display 4:3 programming. A 4:3 set uses bars at top and bottom to display 16:9 programming.

For visually literate film buffs, who want to see everything the filmmaker intended, bars are the least of all possible evils. The alternatives to bars are cropping (of widescreen programming) and stretching (of nonwidescreen programming).

Cropping replaces horizontal top-and-bottom bars on nonwidescreen TVs. The downside is that it truncates the image. Cropping was omnipresent back in the bad old days of VHS. Even today, some DVDs are still released in ?full screen? versions. Of course, while they fill the screen, they don?t deliver the full image.

Stretching, the subject of this month?s rant, replaces vertical left-and-right bars on widescreen displays. Just about all widescreen DTVs offer a horizontal stretch mode. Many even include a smart stretch mode that stretches less in the middle, where the effect is most intrusive, and more at the sides. Side-to-side motions become distorted but static close-ups look better.

I have no problem with including stretch modes in DTVs. Some people are more offended by bars than by stretching. And some kinds of displays, including those based on tubes, can suffer from burn-in if bars stay onscreen for too long. If you want to stretch, stretch away, as long as I don?t have to watch movies at your house.

My objection is to indiscriminate use of the stretch mode. Whether the cause is ignorance, apathy, or sheer laziness, the result is the same. Things don?t look the way they should. Visual incoherence reigns supreme. It?s like listening to music with painful distortion. I?m surprised anyone can stand it for longer than a minute?I certainly can?t.

Flat-panel proliferation has turned indiscriminate stretching into an epidemic. Plasma and LCD TVs have become ubiquitous in bars, banks, airports, and doctors? offices, and because the people setting them up don?t care how they look, they end up functioning as visual-pollution units. I long to switch these things off and often wish they hadn?t been installed in the first place. Given a choice between visual pollution and no TV, I?ll take no TV any day.

Retailers should know better. When I walk into a store, I expect to see widescreen TVs working in the right aspect ratio. The people who manage these stores should either get hip or find other jobs. If I were an executive for a major chain, and walked into one of my stores to find a bunch of misadjusted sets, I?d give the manager a piece of my mind. On the second or third offense, I?d fire him.

Even worse than the retailers are the production professionals who tolerate stretched images. Anyone who directs a movie or TV program should know better. Have you noticed that the studio sets of newscasts are now outfitted with flat panels? When I look over the anchor?s shoulder, I do not want to see remote segments, video clips, or still images in anything but the correct proportions.

I look forward to reading your posts on the subject. Are misshapen images as big a problem for you as they are for me?or am I just getting bent out of shape over nothing?

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Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.