¡Letterbox This! Or the continuing folly of widescreen format in the digital age


*Ed. Note: I originally published a rough draft version of this article on the black hole of blogging known as “Tumblr” and it was met with ready wit and stunning repartee. Just kidding. It was ignored. Don’t blog on Tumblr. No one reads anything there.

Wanna know what’s funny? Remember way back when “letterbox” format was new to the general public and you would get all these people freaking out about the “black boxes” or bars on their TVs? There were convinced (wrongly) that they were missing something when, in fact, they were getting the whole picture, as intended, on outdated televisions.

What is “letterbox” you ask? The following definition, from rtings, spells it out pretty well:

“The position and size of black bars on your television depend on two factors: the aspect ratio of your television and the aspect ratio of the video you are watching. Any mismatch between the two will be filled by the black color. This practice is called letterboxing.”

Okay. Maybe you don’t remember (I love dating myself on here by the way), but I do! It was a big deal. I grew up on things like “square” TV, three networks channels, one public one and one UHF channel and of course, black and white TV. Going to the movie theater to see a film, in what was then, “movie aspect ratio,” was fun because it was different…bigger!

Flash forward a decade or so and everything started to change. I’m in that generation of people where technology started to make leaps and bounds and quickly! At one time, I was excited about all the “letterbox” movies they were releasing on VHS and I collected quite a few. I still have them…in the garage. :/

And, man, did people ever complain about this new-found technology…which wasn’t really new! It took forever for “widescreen” to become the norm and yet many people still don’t really understand it.

What kills me these days is seeing networks do the reverse…but I digress.

tech diff

See, for a long time, TV was filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio, or “square” format. All your (my) favorite old shows were filmed that way. But since widescreen format (1:85:1) took hold, and really, took over, everything is now filmed and presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio. So…now, older shows look funky on today’s TVs because they were filmed in a different aspect ratio and everyone has widescreen TVs…oy vey.

For more on aspect ratios, go here.

Before our TVs got all “smart” on us, these things were not noticeable. But once everything switched over to digital, it became very apparent. Try watching some of the “over the air” (see: free) TV stations who do not broadcast in widescreen and or HD! The picture looks terrible on today’s televisions! It’s weird and huge step backwards!

People never did understand what “pan and scan” meant nor did they comprehend what it meant when a TV station “modified” your film to “fit your screen.” Remember those disclaimers? And it’s hard to believe we’re still screwing with the picture! But what they were/are doing is blasphemy to a filmmaker, because by squeezing the film to fit the TV square and then psychically panning the screen for wider shots is essentially cutting and pasting and pirate editing.

Well, now, that widescreen is the standard which everyone expects and is used to, you have TV stations taking older 4:3 shows (that were NOT filmed in widescreen) and they are “stretching” them to make them look like they are letterbox!

They’re doing this so that you do not get the “black boxes” (on the sides this time) on your TV because people are idiots and would think they were losing some part of the picture. But in fact, you ARE losing part of the picture by them doing this now! Ha!

I saw them do this with older episodes of The Simpsons recently and they looked terrible. So, we’re right back where we started! Hilarious…and sad, really.

What is it about aspect ratios and black boxes on the screen that make people uncomfortable? This I would like to know. I mean, I lived through the formats and changes and understood them just fine. It drives me insane when people don’t get it.

Will there ever be a standard that allows for things to look as intended or are we doomed to a future of things “modified to fit” your screen? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Do you care? My guess is younger people, who didn’t have to live through the changes, do not.


2 thoughts on “¡Letterbox This! Or the continuing folly of widescreen format in the digital age

  1. I grew up in that older generation you are referring to ( I’m 53) and not having a technically savy brain, I still don’t get it. My new flatscreen TV gives me the ability to choose between 3 aspect ratios, and darned if I can be bothered to switch depending on the channel I’m watching. I just put up with the black boxes on certain channels and choose the aspect ratio that seems the least distracting on the greatest number of channels. Thank goodness I’ve learned to live with black boxes and ignore them and enjoy the picture. I also have a “cinema mode” which I don’t really get, because it’s a 29 inch TV- cinema mode- really? I’m probably one of those people you deplore, but my philosophy is “keep it simple” and sometimes advanced technology just hurts my brain. I only got rid of my big box TV last year. After all, I was in junior high school before my family bought a color TV!


    • It’s funny because I’d never imagine that they would still be trying to mix different formats but here we are. And it’s not your fault – the technology changes all the time. Now we’re headed into even higher resolution and that will mean your local news anchors will look even worse in ultra HD…hehe. But yeah, if the boxes are showing that just means that’s the intended aspect ratio. But like I said, you have TV stations now doing the opposite than what they used to, which is just bizarre..o_O


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