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Should a 16:9 Broadcast Fill My Widescreen HDTV?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/19/2009

The answer is both yes and no, because it all depends on your content provider. HDTV broadcasts are still pretty new and some providers haven't quite caught up to the technology because they are still servicing both HDTV and SD signals.

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    Black Bars

    Have you ever watched a movie or TV show on your widescreen HDTV and wondered why there were still black bars at the top and bottom of the screen? Wasn’t the whole point of going widescreen to eliminate those bars that used to show up on regular sized televisions? In this article, I will explain why this happens and tell the differences in aspect ratios and how they are displayed on your HDTV.

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    Aspect Ratios

    Widescreen comes mainly in two different aspect ratios – 2.35:1 and 1.85:1. The 1.85:1 version is also known as 16:9. If you look on the back of a DVD or Blu-Ray box, it will usually tell you which one it uses. What the numbers represent is the difference in width versus height. In other words, a 1.85:1 ratio means the screen is 1.85 times wider than it is tall. A standard definition TV uses a ratio of 1.33:1, or 4:3, meaning it is only slightly wider than it is tall.

    Most widescreen televisions utilize the 16:9 aspect ratio since this is the default widescreen size used for HDTV broadcasts. A great many DVD and Blu-Ray movies use this same aspect ratio, but you’ll also find plenty more that use 2.35:1. A movie with a 2.35:1 picture will have black bars at the top and bottom. Also know that a movie in ‘standard’ definition, which is 4:3, will have black bars on the left and right side of the screen. Some movies are available in both formats, so be careful what you buy – especially at Wal-Mart where the standard definition DVD’s are most often found.

    If you are watching a widescreen broadcast on your HDTV, then it should be in the 16:9 ratio and therefore should fill up your screen. However, this is not always the case. If it does not fill the screen, you may need to change the settings on your television. Most widescreen HDTV’s have a ‘screen size’ option of some kind that lets you zoom in, stretch the image, and so on. I have a Philips HDTV that I keep on ‘automatic’ so that it can resize when necessary.

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    HDTV - The Big Switch

    Unfortunately, there is no one answer to the question of whether or not a 16:9 broadcast will fit your HDTV screen. On a technical level it should fit, but it all depends on your provider and what they’ve done to the signal before it gets to your television. Sometimes a cable provider will take an HDTV signal and broadcast it as SD (standard definition) on the HD channel, thus resulting in black bars all around the picture. Not all HD broadcasts are in widescreen, either.

    As of this writing, there are a few high-priced widescreen HDTV’s that do use the higher 2:35:1 aspect ratio. Personally, I wish the motion picture industry had developed some kind of standardization long before all these technological developments took place. The transition from film to home theater has been paved with far too many bumps in the road.

    One last thing you should keep in mind with all of this is that HDTV programming is all relatively new. The date for ‘The Big Switch’ to digital TV was set back because so many people weren’t ready. Many people have invested the money in giant widescreen HDTV’s and can at least enjoy their DVD and Blu-Ray movies on them, but in the meantime we’ll all be waiting for the broadcast providers to catch up to the technology.