Aspect Ratio Lunacy

By John Conway | September 5, 2007 8:17 pm

This may not be the world’s most pressing problem, but it’s one that has started to become more and more odd to me as time has gone by. On the surface, you can easily understand how it has arisen, but the more you consider it the more you wonder just how other people do see the world around them.

We are saturated with video imagery now, in our homes, in shopping malls, airports, and on line. It’s only going to increase with time. So, I ask, why can’t we get the friggin’ aspect ratio correct anyway on all this video?

Up until the last few years, just about all video in the US (and Japan and elsewhere) was displayed in a 4:3 format called NTSC. (Europe adopted different standards, PAL/SECAM, but never mind that for now.) With good old TV, the NTSC format had a resolution of 486 horizontal lines. Translate that into a digital video screen and you’d need 648×486 pixels.

Typical computer screens in the early days had resolutions on that order, but quickly got better. Before long, “XGA” became very common, with 1024×768 pixels. This neatly utilized 10 bits for the horizontal and retained the 4:3 aspect ratio. Cool: all you had to do was translate the video NTSC signal into a digital signal and you could use a digitial monitor!

I’ll skip all the details, but in the past decade we’ve seen an explosion of flat-screen plasma and LCD monitors, which are almost all a wider 16:9 format. This allows them to accomodate the HDTV format, which is designed to have such a ratio, with resolution such as 1920×1080. That’s an aspect ratio of 1.78, quite a bit wider than the old 1.33, but not nearly as big as modern Hollywood films (2.35!).

The problem is that a lot of television (broadcast and cable) is still transmitted in 4:3 ratio, but then displayed on a wide-format 16:9 screen. The designers of the 16:9 monitors have built in the choice (often the default) of simply stretching the 4:3 image to fit the 16:9 screen. The result, as I am sure you have all seen, is that faces and bodies are distorted horizontally by a factor of 4:3 or 1.333. Everyone looks 33% wider, unless of course they are laying down, in which case they look 33% taller. The alternative is to set the monitor to display the 4:3 image so that it uses up all the vertical part of the display but not the horizontal. That seems to bother some people even more than the distorted faces – why buy a big expensive wide screen display and then not use it all?

My own strong preference is to never distort the aspect ratio of image, no matter how big a TV you have. It just looks really stupid to do that. But here we come to the firtst odd thing that I have noticed: some people apparently don’t even notice that there is a distortion! I first encountered this in an electronics store, where the salesperson swore up and down he could see no difference. I’ve asked some random people in various places if they could see the distortion, and around a third claimed not to. You have to wonder how the human visual processing system works…are people who don’t see the distortion internally correcting for this automatically or something?

Even more bizarre is the video you can get online from news outlets like CNN. It’s hard to believe, but they acutally put the distortion into their online video, even though there is absolutely no reason to do so, except perhaps to make it look like it does when distorted on displays you see in public, or in upscale hotel rooms. They are intentionally distorting the image! WTF ? I find this totally baffling.

Here is a random example of some CNN video:

CNN-video-wide

Now if we shrink it horizontally by 25% (3:4 of course!) then it looks like this:

CNN-video-norm

If you cannot see the difference between these, I am baffled. And if you don’t prefer the one where the nice-looking mom’s face is not grossly distorted, then I am even more baffled!

There are perhaps deeper reasons for this effect. Somehow, perhaps CNN thinks that since people have been going around seeing distorted images all over the place, they’ve started to think that this is the new normal? Or perhaps it’s part of the vast media conspiracy aimed at making us feel good about being fat? It’s a fact that more and more obese people are appearing in advertisements…this makes good marketing sense in that people want to identify with the people they see in ads (or at least the advertisers want the target audience to do so) and since such a huge proportion of Americans are obese, adding an additional 33% to their video width is, well, just good marketing.

I would like to believe that this is all a phase, growing pains of our new digital culture. As video designers get better and the hardware gets more sophisticated, I hope that the distorted faces we see all around us will begin to look like the unfortunate by-product of the early phase of this technology. Some day we’ll look back on this and…cringe.

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  • Tom

    Preach on, brother! This drives me nuts too.

  • http://zenoferox.blogspot.com/ Zeno

    My octogenarian father feels he is not getting his money’s worth if there is even a sliver of blank space along the edges of his giant television screen, so he insists on watching all 4:3 broadcasts in streeeeeetched mode. It drives me crazy on my visits to my parents’, so if he’s watching something that I’m interested in (e.g., not sports), I sit well to one side of the TV to compensate for the distortion. I have even seen Dad watch Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker during the holidays in Distort-O-Vision. The svelte ballerinas end up looking like the hippos in Disney’s Fantasia.

    But it makes him happy, I suppose.

  • anon.

    The result, as I am sure you have all seen, is that faces and bodies are distorted horizontally by a factor of 4:3 or 1.333. Everyone looks 33% wider, unless of course they are laying down, in which case they look 33% taller.

    This isn’t always the case; some wide-screen TVs have a way of stretching the image that increases the distortion near the edges but leaves the image mostly unchanged in the very center. Since typically the things you want to focus on are near the center, this can look better than the simple 4:3 stretching. (But then when someone steps to the side of the screen, they become absurdly wide.) You do get used to this after a while.

    The alternative is to set the monitor to display the 4:3 image so that it uses up all the vertical part of the display but not the horizontal. That seems to bother some people even more than the distorted faces – why buy a big expensive wide screen display and then not use it all?

    At least with some projection TVs there was (or so the documentation claimed) a danger that frequently viewing 4:3 images in the center while the bands on the sides were black would lead to a ‘burn-in’ that would distort the relative brightness of the different parts of the screen, so watching in the stretched mode was encouraged. I’m not sure if this is a serious problem, but it’s the justification I’ve heard for why wide-screen TVs are set to stretched mode most of the time.

    At any rate, I notice the distorted image if I just look at the screen briefly, but after watching for a while it doesn’t distract me.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/john John

    All good comments so far…but why the heck does CNN distort their online video?

  • Ellipsis

    All good comments so far…but why the heck does CNN distort their online video?

    I say we burn them at the stake! If they survive — then it proves that they’re all witches.

    But first … try using their feedback web page to suggest.

  • http://gibsonian.blogspot.com/ Ian B Gibson

    I bet you that the third of the population who can’t tell the difference aren’t technically inclined.

    Stuff like that really annoys me as well, but several members of my family couldn’t care less.

    I remember having an argument with my wife years ago after I demanded our money back at the cinema because the picture was so dark you could hardly see what was going on in many scenes (it was so bad I was half expecting that we were unwitting participants in some kind of experiment to see how far you can push people before they’ll complain). Nobody else in the theatre seemed bothered either, though.

    Maybe people really do literally see things differently.

  • http://www.russbrooks.com Russ Brooks

    These are the same people that look at HDTV vs. TV or HD-DVD vs. DVD and say, “I can’t tell the difference.” The same people that look at 1,600 x 1,200 screen resolution with a crinkled face exclaiming, “Everything’s all small!” and switch it back to 800 x 600. The same people that aren’t bothered by MPEG and JPEG artifacts. The same people that think MP3’s or M4A’s are remotely sonically comparable to CDs. The same people that find the stock iPod earbuds acceptable music reproduction device. The same people that paint the interior of their houses white. The same people that think Armageddon was a quality film. The same people to who think Yuengling and Corona are gourmet beer and Mondavi and Kendall Jackson are fine wines. The same that think Macanudos are a exquisite cigar. The same who buy Chevy’s. The same who think Pam Anderson is “quite a catch”.

    It has nothing to do with these mediocre minds “internally correcting”. Don’t dignify them with overestimations. It is simple laziness, ignorance, and stupidity – the American way.

    Sorry. I’m done now. Can you tell I’ve got serious issues with this matter? You are absolutely right. It needs to stop, immediately. It’s an epidemic. TV manufacturers need to remove ALL features that modify the original aspect ratio in any way.

  • Jeffrey

    In New Zealand, TV3 have gone to wide-screen broadcasting of locally produced programs, like the news. But for some reason this doesn’t appear “properly” on my TV and not sure if it is my end or the cable TV providers end. As you would expect, for images that are in wide-screen, horizontal black bars are inserted at the top and bottom for the 4:3 TV. BUT the bars remain for programs that are already in 4:3, and vertical black bars are inserted as well. So you end up with the the TV image only occupying about 75% of the screen.

  • Michael D

    Whenever at parents house with their 1m projection TV, always grab the remote and switch to “Cinema” mode. It stretches to full width, and chops off top and bottom. so you get full screen and no distortion.

    only problem is if essential items (such as time/sports score info) are contained in top/bottom 10% or so. and its often with sports – cricket, football, where short and stumpy players is most noticeable.

    for films and most programs directors/cinematographers rarely crop their shots that close. and in any case, most dvd films are in 16:9 so doesn’t effect them.

    m

  • Jason Dick

    Wow. How can people not notice the difference? That’s just incredible.

    As for me, so far all of the widescreen TV’s I’ve used (just 3 so far) have had controls where you could adjust the zoom. For example, if I am watching a 4:3 ratio broadcast that has a 16:9 ratio image (black bars on top and bottom), I can zoom the image in to use up the whole screen. I never understood why anybody would want to distort the image.

    But most of my consternation with widescreen has actually been on my PC. Since I got my 24″ widescreen PC monitor, I’ve had issues with a number of different games in getting them to play without distortion. By default the monitor will stretch the image, and for a few months the video drivers I had wouldn’t allow me to change this at all. So I just shied away from games that didn’t support widescreen resolutions for a while. Fortunately that’s been fixed for some time, though oddly the default is still to stretch the image instead of “fixed aspect ratio scaling”.

  • Anne

    People are used to seeing images distorted – any time you look at a movie screen or a TV or a poster or a painting or whatever from an angle other than face-on, it’s foreshortened (and usually keystoned too). But we don’t notice that because we’re used to mentally reversing the transformation so we can see what the thing is supposed to look like. Lots of optical illusions work by tricking the part of our brains that does this.

    Lots of the general pay-no-attention-to-the-grunge things people complain about come about the same way – MP3s don’t sound the same as CDs, but the difference is hard to hear while ignoring the rumble of my prehistoric refrigerator, the random banging and muffled music of my neighbours, and the traffic noise from the street outside. In fact, I make a point of not listening for the flaws in my MP3s, as they would be annoying if I noticed them and it would be expensive to reduce them.

    Human perception is much more mediated by the brain than we usually give it credit for.

  • Sam Nesvoy

    At least the HDTVs have controls that let you choose how to handle aspect-ratio problems. The embedded (or downloadable) video players for online video don’t (at least I’ve never seen one that does). In fact, those players rarely even have a brightness control! I say, empower everyone to choose their own aspect ratio! (Wasn’t this an issue way back in American history? — “54:40 or fight!”)

  • kevin

    Russ Brooks, well said. But it’s not just in america either, you see it everywhere, and it’s more than irritating. You can’t really reason with them either, which adds to the annoyance.

  • Alex Streit

    As with many things in real life, they are not quite that simple.

    Firstly, there isn’t just 4:3 and 16:9. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspect_ratio_(image) for an example.

    Secondly, TV (NTSC/PAL) couldn’t ever guarantee to show the whole picture, so you had a smaller “safe” area of the screen that all the important action appeared on. So who knows what would be cut off and what the aspect ratio would end up as.

    I think that for most people their visual processing adjusts for it and they don’t notice. To me the strangest is the 1280×1024 aspect ratio. It doesn’t match anything else, why did we choose that?

    Also, I should point out that most of the world is NOT NTSC, it is only used in esoteric corners of the world, like USA&Japan (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:PAL-NTSC-SECAM.svg)

    I’d say that the programmers for CNN simply found it easier to use a 1:1 ratio.

  • axel_621

    Alex has it right here, it is far from being a uniquely American problem.

    In Australia (where we use PAL/SECAM, like the other 94% of the planet), we have a further problem in that most people get their TV broadcast over VHF/UHF transmission, and their arials/TVs will be so often be poorly tuned enough that you’ll get ghosting and other effects on the TV, sometimes so bad I cannot physically bring myself to watch it. When I point it out to people, they will often look at me blankly, not understanding what the problem is. On one occasion, I even retuned a friends TV to clear it up, and he told me he didn’t see what the difference was!

    Chances are, whomever at CNN is responsible for converting the diged footage to a PC format, either isn’t paying attention, or else is using software that won’t convert the aspect ratio correctly (not unusal). And since it’s for something as relatively unimportant as video streaming on their website, it probably doesn’t rate that high on priority scales for fixing.

    I gotta say though, I am shamed to hear that you guys still get a lot of TV in 4:3. There really is no excuse these days for anything to be shot with 4:3 cameras these days.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Hmm, both images are flat, while the pictured images actually live in 3D. Did the subjects of your poll notice this?

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    lol John, nothing to do with Pamela Anderson.
    But does the woman in the lower picture look gaunt, whereas the woman in the upper picture appears to have wider cheekbones and more botox on the lips.
    Feel good factor … nah they are just trying to disguise how much plastic surgery distorts faces, you know make distorted (and large) appear normal.

    But Zeno has probably hit it on the nail, people like to feel they are getting wide screen and their money’s worth by filling the tv screen – even on a cheap(er) tv.

    Me I just watch 14 inch thru a magnifying glass.

  • http://www.qunat.org/pieterkok/ PK

    Of course everybody notices the difference between the correct and the stretched aspect ratio when you put them next to each other. However, our brains are trained to recognize the face of Jesus people in almost anything, so it is not surprising that many people don’t really mind.

    Nevertheless, YouTube should carry both aspect ratios.

  • Matt

    Hear Hear! Seriously, it kills me. I work in advertising – half or more of my job is overseeing the creation broadcast video, and I swear that half the post-production facilities I work at, THE PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY CREATE THE VIDEO, have their 4:3 work playing in their lobbies, stretched to 16:9!! It absolutely baffles me.

    I also read about an outdoor HBO event in chicago, where they were playing a classic movie for free, one that was shot in 4:3. But the exec in charge of it decided to blow it up and crop the top and bottom to make it look widescreen, so it would look “more professional”.

    Yeesh.

  • Moshe

    eh, reason number 873 to turn off your TV…

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Russ Brooks: The same people that paint the interior of their houses white.

    Hey! Use a broad brush much? One of these things is not like the others.

  • John Ramsden

    I bought a new PC and a widescreen monitor a while ago, and I’ve found the same thing applies to web pages, which Browsers typically stretch across the screen.

    It’s not as bad as TV though, because the images don’t seem to be stretched. But I’m ashamed to admit that for the first few days I thought MathPlayer was playing up, by displaying blank MathML lines, and it was only later by chance I noticed the MathML lines displayed perfectly but centered and therefore so far across the screen from the left margin I hadn’t seen them!

  • Anthony

    “Translate that into a digital video screen and you’d need 648×486 pixels.”

    You have assumed square pixels. Generally with TV they aren’t (NTSC doesn’t really have columns, only rows; its analogue). DVDs, for example, use 720×480.

    Now, if someone were to implement http://www.faculty.idc.ac.il/arik/imret.pdf to convert 4:3 to 16:9, that’d be neat. Probably some serious technical challenges to doing it real-time on video.

  • Xerxes

    What’s worse than the aforementioned very annoying TV feature is another one I’ve seen where the center of the image is at normal aspect ratio, but as you approach the edges, the image is increasingly distorted so that the image fills the entire screen area. If you just look at the still image, you can only just notice that something’s not quite right, but when the camera moves or pans across, the whole thing is just a mess of distorting and undistorting as different parts of the image move across areas of the screen with different effective aspect ratios. This gave me a real headache, since the TV where I first saw this was used mainly to show football matches, which are nothing but panning back and forth as the ball goes up and down the field. How can this not bother people?

  • dave tweed

    At a tangent on aspect ratio type stuff, it seems like most blogging software (including CV) seem to choose a width designed, presumably, to fit on a 640×480 screen and/or give a “comfortable” text width, and stick absolutely HUGE coloured bars on either side to fill the rest of the browser window. I can buy the comfortable width argument, except it seems to be assuming you’re using a particular font size. Since I’ve bought a large monitor partly in order to avoid using ridiculously small fonts, I use a large font. The blogging software helpfully keeps the text width the same so I’ve got those enormous coloured bars on either side AND text that contains only ten-twelve characters per line.

    Being more serious, it seems one of the root causes of this is like the assumption “only the sizing I use needs thinking about”.

  • Lord

    All you have to do is sit 42 degrees off axis.

  • Dylan Thurston

    I’m surprised no one has complained yet about an even worse sin: I’ve seen cases where (eg) a 16:9 image had black bars added to make it fit a 4:3 screen, then stretched horizontally to a 16:9 ratio. Then you get an image which is both stretched and has big ugly bars, when it could perfectly well fit on the whole screen.

    One time I saw this was at the National Design Museum in New York. It did not make me trust their taste in design…

  • http://www.russbrooks.com Russ Brooks

    Hey, apologies for my exuberant post. Hope it came off as tongue-in-cheek as I intended. I didn’t mean to offend any fans of white interior colors, Macanudos, Pam Anderson, or Chevy’s. Just trying to make my point a little more colorful for entertainment’s sake.

    But white, though? Really? Don’t be afraid of those colors. They’ll warm your life up. 😀

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    “All good comments so far…but why the heck does CNN distort their online video?”

    I can’t answer this. I can however tell you some of how this started.
    Back in the early days of digital video, given that idiots (ie TV engineers) were running the show, it was decided that wouldn’t it be cool if the same bit rate could be used for both NTSC and PAL. No problem, we can get that to work by sampling the two using different pixel aspect ratios. (For even more inexplicable reasons, neither of which is square; they are like 1.1 and 0.9 width to height.)

    OK, roll on MPEG-1. Also with substantial input from the idiot TV engineers. This decides great, let’s keep this fscked up abortion of a scheme and also use non-square pixels. Back in those days (early 90s) we didn’t have them fancy graphics cards you kids are used to, and it cost cycles to rescale the video. The code I wrote for Apple to decode MPEG did actually do the rescaling, through a totally cool “1-bit” bi-linear interpolation scheme (if you just drop/duplicate pixels you see very obvious “stripes” in the video every 10 columns or so) that through fancy table lookups rolled this work into other work that also had to be done (color conversion, transfer to VRAM etc). However every competitor MPEG program I saw seemed to just ignore this, and display the material with the wrong aspect ratio; and none of the users ever seemed to complain.

    Roll on MPEG-2, now with extra stupidity. Along with other brain-dead ideas in that standard, we got a new definition of aspect ratio; which still didn’t seem to get anyone to actually care about doing the job right.

    And so we get to today. We finally have, in MPEG4 and H264 standards that were mostly put together by computer people, not TV people, and so aren’t completely idiotic, but we have a generation of production people in places like CNN who have just accepted this stuff all their working lives. It would be nice to believe that the people hired by CNN actually take it as one of their responsibilities to understand the technology, and figure out why what they are doing looks like crap, but what I imagine is going on is that, since the days of D1 digital, they’ve dealt with equipment and programs that display this stuff wrong, and they just assume this is the way the world is.

    Heck, I have complained enough times, on this very site, about the various technical crappinesses of Flash video and the response I have always got is to shut my mouth, the rest of you think it is just fine to have video that has grossly broken audio-video synchronization, takes up far more CPU than is required, and displays ghastly blocking and ringing artifacts.

  • chemicalscum

    The ogg video of the Mark Shuttleworth interview that comes with Ubuntu looks like the CNN example with a default distorted aspect ratio. Unless of course Mark is a lot squatter than I thought. I just dragged the bottom of the window down until it looked about right.

    Why they did it, I don’t know.

  • Bill

    Russ: Elitist much? Get over yourself, man.

    As for removing anything that can change the aspect ratio of something, doing so would prevent the proper display of nearly all DVDs. The resolution of dvd is 720×480 (though the pixels aren’t square, so it remains a 4:3 image). Widescreen movies used to (and I suppose still do occasionally, with poor quality product) acheive widescreen on 4:3 displays by matting the top and bottom of the picture. When displayed on a TV with a 16:9 aspect ratio, full zooming was required to fill the frame and acheive anything resembling the proper aspect ratio, though because of inconsistent zoom functionalities between tvs, something was usually lost in the process. So DVDs have for many years been made with anamorphically squeezed content that uses all (or in the case of wider-aspect movies, significantly more) of the vertical resolution and all of the horizontal resolution to make an image that will look right when unsqueezed by a ratio of 1.33… just like the CNN video, except it has been designed to be viewed this way.

    Most TVs and DVD players default to fill the frame horizontally not to prevent burn in (most tv types don’t suffer from burn in) but to makes certain that DVDs will look right when played. You still have aspect ratio controls on your TV because there are plenty of older, non-anamorphic dvds out there. And because there’s no consistency between broadcasters with regards to how they display content, vis a vie aspect ratio (shout out to ESPN HD, who will insert into the signal animated “ESPN HD” bars around 4:3 content, mostly commercials, so that aspect ratio is preserved and burn-in isn’t a risk). And yes, also so that people who want to fill their damn screen can do so, because ignorant or not, they have every right to do whatever they please.

    Now as for the stretched video on CNN… that’s just screwed up.

  • Grant Morgan

    I think peoples brains just adjust. Remember when screens where not flat? The first flat screens came out and straight lines looked curved. If people whear glasses with mirrors to invert the image after awhile they get used to it and see things normally until they take the glasses off. When I get new glasses if they have larger lens either vertiacally or horizontally, everything looks distorted when I look through the lens near the edge. After a couple hours it does not bother me. After a day or two I correct for it and wearing my old glasses seem to distort images.

  • Brett

    When the first flat screen televisions came out, straight lines on them sometimes WERE curved. Broadcast television sometimes has (or at least used to have) distortion intentionally added to the signal, to cancel out the effect of watching it on a curved screen. The broadcasters were subtle about it; they didn’t cancel out the whole effect, because people were used to seeing it and not all screens are curved exactly the same way.

    Initially, flat (and wide) screen TVs were hyped as the best way to watch movies, but little was said about watching ordinary broadcast television on them. I remember going to a consumer electronics store where they had dozens of them showing DVDs–and one displaying a television news broadcast. On that last one, the reverse distortion was plainly visible if you looked around the edges of the image. It wasn’t that pronounced, really, but it was jarring to me, because the distortion was in the opposite direction from what I was used to seeing on TVs.

    Maybe they’ve eliminated this now, but it was a real phenomenon, not just an optical illusion.

  • Richard

    I’ve seen this sort of distorted video as well, and I don’t like it. I grew up in an era where the aspiration was reproducing reality with fidelity, whether it was photography, cinema, music, etc. I think that those accursed cell phones began the fall of civilization into mediocrity. Built by engineers who mostly have tin ears, they sound atrocious, and human voices sound alien. It seems to me that reproducing the human voice should have been the topmost goal of the design of these things, and these things don’t. As far as I”m concerned, they are total failures as human-centered technology. Then we got compressed audio and video. Most kids in college now have no concept of what fine audio is, and what actually sounds natural. None.

  • foldedpath

    The way CNN handles online video is annoying, but you can use the aspect ratio switch back at ’em, to clean up that annoying ticker-tape text scroll across the bottom of the screen on their cable video.

    We have a small LCD 16:9 screen in our kitchen. We only use it for watching local news and CNN (the big projection screen is in the bedroom for DVD movies). The cable feed is 4:3, and I leave it set on the “zoom” aspect ratio so it cuts off a little on the top and bottom, knocking out that annoying constant text crawl at the bottom.

  • http://catownersregrets.blogspot.com serial catowner

    It’s actually worse than all that.

    Take a picture of a person, import it into a graphics program, put a new layer over it, and trace the picture. Now withdraw the original photo. The tracing will look “wrong”. How can that be? The picture- take it yourself if you don’t trust others- looks right, the tracing looks wrong.

    The good news here would be that there will always be work for illustrators who do it the old way, and your spouse will look beautiful to you as long as you love them.

  • http://www.savory.de/blog.htm Stu Savory

    I think it is even more amazing that by just changing the aspect ratio in your two pictures, the car in the background changed from black to white 😉

  • rillian

    It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one with this pet peeve.

    I assume it’s mostly to do with “getting your money’s worth with that wide screen”. I’ve been in several hotels recently with new 16:9 LCD televisions, but with 4:3 cable feeds. The irony is that the tv has an “autodetect aspect ratio” setting which worked properly, but the power-on default was “stretch to fit”.

    Most people are used to watching movies letterboxed now; I wonder if they’ll get used to “barndoors” on older tv shows in another twenty years.

  • Gareth

    The only reason I can think of it that at some point in the near future CNN intends to go HD & thus Widescreen – and that they took the decision to hardcode their flash to 16:9 in a future-proofing we can’t quite be bothered why.

    As for #29, there’s an awful lot of thought that went into the standards that have driven TV for many years, PAL was especially clever (as a european I have to say that). There’s never been anything stopping you use square pixels with MPEG1 or 2, and indeed non-square pixels on H264. Yes non-square pixels are an oddity, but HDTV was the right time to phase them out, given what MPEG1 and 2 were designed for, it’s not surprising that they supported non-square pixels and aspect ratios. In the UK the main broadcasters are actually very good at making sure their video is signalled correctly.

    Don’t act like IT people have all the answers please, because in reality a lot of the failures you get on TV are not about broadcast equipment failing, but the computers that control them failing.

  • anonymous snowboarder

    great to see some discussion of pixel aspect ratios! Just to toss out another oddity many may not know, most dvds cut out up to 10% of the available picture. This is because of another tie to analog tv – overscan. Because of inconsistencies in quality and differences between manufacturers, the video that was transmitted was bigger than the displayable area (search around for a more detailed explanation). The next time you watch a dvd, grab the controller and play with your zoom button (shrink it).

  • suv4x4

    I came to this post by googling for “cnn aspect ratio” since I also couldn’t comprehend the reason CNN’s online video is so badly stretched.

    Compensation does happen since we often view our TV-s at odd angles where the ratio is not what we perceive it as.

    That said it doesn’t make the choice to plain out stretch the video in this way much less horrible (only a bit less horrible).

    Even weirder is this: notice the text and CNN logo are overlayed at square ratio.

    It looks like this was a decision at CNN so they can transmit wide screen video on cable, and now all their archives are pre-stretched like that, hence this is how they publish it online.

    I pray it’s just an artifact of transitional period as you do, and hope they’ll get it right within 1-2 years.

  • Jodi

    I would be willing to bet money that CNN just takes the original stretched video and drops it on the web site without any thought whatsoever. I’d also bet that there are a handful of people who work there and are really irked by it, but no one else cares, so they won’t do anything. Having worked for a couple of media organizations, I can say without a doubt that any mistake, however egregious, is 9 times out of ten the result of someone not paying attention, not caring, or not knowing how else to do it.

  • Andrei State

    About those idiotic CNN videos: amusingly enough, the commercials that come with them are shown w/o distortion; the advertising industry obviously couldn’t sell much stuff with fat people. But what is amazing to me is that people like, say, their news anchors do not feel “misrepresented” and complain about it. Surely at least half of them must be vain enough to do so. After all, who wants to look fat? But the fact that this does not happen must mean that most people are indeed clueless. Or at least, that vain people are clueless. Now it all makes sense.

  • Anonymous Coward

    It is now two years since this blog post and CNN has still not fixed it. While stretching 4:3 content to fill an entire 16:9 display is to be expected at pubs where the A/V clue is near zero, I am shocked that a media company has let this go on for so long.

  • Jimmy

    I was looking at my girlfriend’s laptop from an extreme angle when she was watching some CNN video and for a brief second I thought they fixed it. NOPE! Come on, CNN. Your video player is out of date and your aspect ratio has been crap for YEARS now… get with the program!

  • Adam

    I emailed CNN tech support about this issue. In my conversation with Kyle, he didn’t even know what I was talking about at first because he had gotten used to seeing it!

    I submitted a question to CNN’s tech support asking why my player image is stretched into widescreen. Here is our conversation, starting with Kyle’s reply to my initial inquiry:

    —————————————
    June 23, 2009
    Adam,

    It should be in widescreen format. Do other sites stretch the aspect ratio as well? Have you removed previous versions of Flash?

    Kyle
    CNN.com Tech Support

    Full View
    Re: TTS Helpdesk Ticket: 2495381

    Hi Kyle– thanks for writing back. I noticed that for a short while Youtube did the same thing (stretching the 4:3 aspect ration to fit a 16:9 player window) but they fixed the software on their end and it subsequently played correctly on my PC.

    I’m very good about keeping my software up to date, so it’s not a flash player issue. Incidentally, this same thing happens both at my home PC and my work PC (which our IT department maintains). I’m at my work PC now… I’ve attached a screenshot for you comparing two similar shots of Dr. Gupta…. the screenshot on the top is how my PC at home plays it as well.

    Adam

    One more thing, Kyle–

    Look at this second image I’ve attached… notice that the CNN logo on the 16:9 player is not stretched and distorted the way Dr Gupta’s image is. The CNN logo in the 16:9 image It is the same size (proportionally) as the 4:3 Youtube video.

    This says to me that the image distortion/stretch is coming from CNN.com and is not a user software issue.

    Let me know what you find out

    Thanks,
    Adam

    Adam,

    Is this happening with all of our video? Can you send a link to the video it is occuring with?

    Kyle

    Yes, this happens on all the videos. Here is just one example

    http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2009/06/24/ac.shot.tues.cnn

    Adam

    Adam,

    I see what you are talking about now. I suppose I just became accustomed to the way it looked after watching it for so long! I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything for you, as this is the ratio the producers are uploading. I wish I had a better fix/solution, but I really can’t do anything. I can put the complaint in.

    Kyle

    Oh no! When the IT guys have gotten used to viewing distorted images, what hope is there for the rest of us? :)

    I understand it when people stretch images to fit their wide LCD/plasma screens to avoid burn in. I think this is why people aren’t bothered by CNN.com video– they’re used to seeing it at home), but it seems kind of silly when a software based media player without a fixed screen size does the same thing.

    However, now I understand that you’re just streaming the content that the producers are providing in an already distorted format. But it is again kind of silly since CNN is already broadcasting in widescreen 16:9 HD, why aren’t they just providing you with 16:9 native footage?? I guess that’s not a question you’ve got the answer to, but it does seem a little absurd, don’t you agree?

    Yes, please do register my complaint with the appropriate people (and spread my jpegs around the IT dept so more people see what’s happening :). I very much appreciate it.

    Thanks Kyle
    Adam

    Hey Kyle,

    Just one more message and then I’ll go back into my distorted viewing corner :)

    I found this article from 2007 (click here) which specifically cites the aspect ratio problem, and cites CNN.com specifically. So it appears that CNN.com has been doing this for quite a long time. The author illustrates precisely my point, but with the same picture. Seen side by side, the difference is pretty staggering. There’s no reason the producers should be distorting digital media like this.

    OK, thanks again… I look forward to the day that cnn.com becomes stops stretching their 4:3 square peg into a 16:9 round hole!

    Adam L
    —————————————–

    No further response.

    It is as the previous poster “Anonymous Coward” said…. if you’re in a sports bar and they’ve got the image distorted, it’s annoying but understandable. When it’s a major multinational media conglomerate, WHAT in the WORLD could they be thinking?

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