Televised Backward Compatibility

Having only had HDTV in the house for roughly 48 hours, I’ve already found something interesting to note. While watching “the game” last night (the second in a series I won’t talk about until we have some good news) I was amused by the little tricks that the designers use while serving screen elements that’ll work with both normal television and HDTV screen widths. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?
figureWhen FOX needed to show an informational banner across the bottom of the screen (see figure), the sides would fade out in a gradient while watching in HD. My guess (and I didn’t check) is that normal TV viewers don’t see the gradient at all, rather the banner just flows across the entire screen. The gradient edges are probably there — but only appear if you have a widescreen HDTV.
The parallels here to web design are obvious: that steps are taken to ensure a usable experience, regardless of screen size. Now aren’t the television designers lucky to have just two, predictable widths to deal with?
I’m also beginning to notice other design choices that reflect the growing number of HDTV customers. Many commericals are presented in 16:9 format, and some add colored bars on top and bottom that seem to purposely mesh visually with the black bars on left and right that appear when a square image is shown on a widescreen.
Having to support two viewport sizes must be challenging — but like the web, designers are finding creative ways to make both experiences work.


  1. quis says:

    I’ve noticed this here in the UK too where we have similar digital TV services. It’s clearly visible on something like BBC News, but also when watching a drama or the like the characters are usually towards the middle of the screen and there are strips of background scenery to the left and right of them. On normal 4:3 TV what tends to happen is there are thin black bars at the top and bottom of the screen so that less has to be cropped from the sides. So it’s a filming problem as well as a design one.

  2. Wayne Godfrey says:

    I have been noticing what you’re talking about as I’ve watched the TV screen become virually a web page. I have actually seen where the nifty graphics have completely failed due to screen size or looked complete stunning on some other set. But the real interesting part is that TV designers do not have to deal with a multitude of TV “browsers.” Meaning that you can watch the same game on say your Sony HDTV as I watch on my aging analog Sharp TV. What do you know, compatibility! What an endering concept. Imagine if you couldn’t see your beloved (you really need to give this up!) Red Sox because you owned a Sony HDTV and Fox was aligned exclusively to Phillips HDTV or the like? That’s what it feels like in the computer world with the lack of standards for all of us and not just on the web.

  3. cale says:

    Also interesting to note is that there is a “safe area” that most broadcast designers try and stay within. The reason being that the old broadcast pictures could vary a few inches left,right,up or down on tube TV’s.
    You’ll notice the abcense of the “safe area” a lot on late night TV commercials where the production staff isn’t as experienced. Gernerally if there is text on the screen that is cut off on the bottom or sides, someone wasn’t aware of the tube discrepancies.
    It’ll be interesting to see how HD impacts this.

  4. Tony says:

    I got a kick out of this as well when I noticed the difference between ESPN Sportcenter in HD and on standard TV. Have a look at ESPNHD and compare it with regular ESPN.

  5. sox says:

    I’m not 100% sure but I think that the fading you’re noticing (or not noticing) is what the HDTV makers refer to as the ‘natural stretch’ where 4:3 content is stretched to fit 16:9 BUT by disproportionally stretching the sides of the image more than the middle so not to make the screen distorted. If I’m correct, the fading you’re refering to was happening to the entire screen, not just to the banner across the bottom.
    ps: Sorry about the Sox,

  6. Sox – No, it was a true HD broadcast in 16:9 — but just the graphics were fading. Wish I had a screen shot :-)

  7. AkaXakA says:

    It doesn’t matter if the channel is digital or not, the aspect ratio’s are the only things that matter.
    Over here in europe, on our pal system (which shouldn’t make much of a difference) some tv is broadcasted in 16:9 whilest other stuff is broadcast in 4:3. The market seems to be moving faster and faster towards 16:9 now, with the rise of Plasma and LCD tv’s, so I expect that quite soon pretty much all we’ll get are 16:9. Note that ‘quite soon’ probably will mean in a few years…
    I’m guessing here that HDTV just doesn’t broadcast in 4:3 and NTSC doesn’t in 16:9…am I right?

  8. Two formats? HA! My job is based around working on both the web and multi-media projects and standard and HD broadcast work, and there aren’t just two formats to worry about. Above someone mentioned “Safe Areas” and there are actually two of those, Title Safe Area and Action Safe Area. Title safe is the innermost 80%, while the Action Safe area is the inner 90% of a DVD, which is 720×534 – if you’re doing the menu in Photoshop. But wait, isn’t 720×480 what you get on a SD TV? No. You don’t. You get something less, and in case you want to know where the width of 534 pixels comes from, it’s that, while computer pixels are square, standard TV’s pixels are not square, they are horizontal rectangles. So 480=534 is most ways for TV. Confused yet? It’s gets better. There is one format, called NTSC that is used in the Americas and Japan, while the competing format is PAL, which is in Europe. They both have different pixel counts/aspect configurations, and they require different hardware to capture the images. You can sometimes see the results of attempts at transcoding from one to the other when a broadcast network shows something that originated in the other format – the audio is always out of sync and the titling is usually off screen.
    The reason those safe areas exist is because TVs don’t have a set way of translating the signal to the image, so you don’t really know exactly what is going to be displayed. You have, really, just best guesses, but having run into TVs where even the Title Safe Area is too tall or too wide for the screen, I’ve become less and less patient to get to HD.
    Why? Because HD has pixels, it’s digital technology and it should work the same on every TV. Everywhere. On. The.! Thank the gods!
    p.s. Why do you think you can’t use that huge TV in your living room for a monitor?

  9. Kevin: Why do you think you can’t use that huge TV in your living room for a monitor
    Actually, I do use it as such (and more so since I put the HDTV card in the computer. There are apps now that allow you to target the widescreen format. The only challenge, if there is one is the size of the characters on the screen. I found that I can’t use anything bigger than 800×600 or the fonts becomes too darn small to read from across the living room.

  10. Sean Sperte says:

    Kevin – thanks for setting the record straight; or at least straighter. Sometimes when designing for video, I *long* to go back to a web graphics.

  11. I apparently made some assumptions about designing for television. Thanks for the info, Kevin. And so it seems it may not be all that different than web, with a myriad of potential screen sizes. Sigh.

  12. Chester says:

    It’s actually even prefered a lot of times to watch a PAL Movie over NTSC (USA Standard) because their are more pixels – giving better quality of picture. Many times I’ve hard that PAL Movies are Terrible because it stretches one way or another – but now-a-days DVD Player show the correct aspect ratio. If it is PAL or NTSC. Thank god for Technology!

  13. Tom Clancy says:

    Fox does a better job than most with that. ESPN has caught on too (as ugly as the silver bars they put on their non 16:9 stuff are, it’s way better than the streching they used to do). Wait ’til the Pats game on Sunday; CBS’ football broadcasts (when they’re in HD) look just fine, but they don’t bother to do anything during the pre-game and just serve up black bars on either side. It seems lazy.
    Too bad you missed out on this season on NESN: they didn’t pay attention to the HD feed and you got to hear Remy and Orsillo warm up in the booth. Plus it skipped a lot of in-game promo stuff.

  14. Tony says:

    It’s probably worth pointing out that there are also at least three formats of HDTV. I won’t try to name them here, because I’m not sure I could give you the right designations off the top of my head and I don’t want to be called out, but there is an HDTV format that is 4:3 aspect ratio.

  15. Actually, I don’t think you are correct as far as 4:3 HDTV formats are concerned. I suspect you maybe referring to the digital 480p format, which is a 480-line, 4:3 format very much similar to the regular analog or digital (interlaced) signal, but is rendered in a progressive manner, which essentially results in better picture quality. This technology is commonly referred to as EDTV, or enhanced digital tv. All HDTV formats use 16:9 ratio, and the two main competing formats are: 720p and 1080i.

  16. Found a little primer on HDTV for those who are interested:

  17. Matt H says:

    I’ve always wondered if TV comercial & studio producers have weblongs… It would be a facinating world to explore. I wonder what their jargon is like…

  18. Tony says:

    >>All HDTV formats use 16:9 ratio, and the two main competing formats are: 720p and 1080i.>>
    And 1080p.

  19. The Wolf says:

    I only support 800×600 for my new design, although I’m sure it will view correctly on smaller screens.
    I have done something unusual however, I’m not going to support IE. Just to see what I can come up with when designing without the constraints IE imposes.

  20. Todd Dominey says:

    This may be a local thing, but where I work (Turner) I’ve often heard the designers who work on Turner Sports HD content (Braves, etc) refer to those side graphics as ‘wings’. They have one hell of a job, I should add — for every broadcast, whether it’s Nascar or NCAA or the Braves, they have to create *twice* as many graphics for broadcast than before HD / 16:9 came about. One set for 99% of the audience (4:3) and another for the executives and the handful of people with HD.

  21. Tom says:

    Am I right in thinking that the only 16:9 sets over there are HDTVs? Over here (UK), 16:9 sets are very popular – indeed, buying a 4:3 TV over 15″ screen size is near-impossible.

  22. Web says:

    I picked up DirectTV / NFL Sunday Ticket/ High Def package a few weeks ago for the kickoff of the football season .. only to realize that local blackout would cause me not to be able to watch the Patriots/Sox in HD.
    Sad realization that was.
    ESPN HD / DISCOVERY HD sure look good. Dan who do you have for satalite/cable?

  23. Dann Ryan says:

    What are you talking about?!?! That’s just crazy!!!!
    What do you mean there’s been no good news in the series? :D

  24. Will says:

    I hate to make it more confusing for people, but there are actually three aspect ratios.
    Academy Standard is 4:3 (1.33:1)
    Academy Flat, or Flat, is 16:9 (1.85:1)
    Anamorphic Scope, or Scope, is 2.35:1
    Scope conveys a more dramatic image, so some movies (Star Wars, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now) use this to their advantage. Unfortunately, that means that these movies are letterboxed, even on a widescreen set! And you thought you wouldn’t have to deal with those black bars any more if you got an HDTV.
    If you really want to get technical, though, the standards for digital television consist of 18 different resolution, frame rate, and aspect ratio combinations. How’s that for simplifying things?
    As with any new technology, learn as much as you can before buying a new TV. The best advice you can get is, “caveat emptor.”

  25. Tony says:

    >>only to realize that local blackout would cause me not to be able to watch the Patriots/Sox in HD.>>
    The FCC wants you to put of an OTA antenae for your local broadcasts anyway. Then you will get all of Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC HD programming and you won’t have to worry about blackouts affecting the football and baseball packages.

  26. icb says:

    Just a quick correction, 1.85 (Matted) is not the same as 16:9 HDTV. Doing the math (16/9) yields 1.77:1 which sits comfortably between 4:3 (1.33:1) and 1.85:1 just as the standards committee wanted it.

  27. geeky says:

    how do you like having the widescreen tv? i’m going to be buying an HD-ready TV in the neat future, and i really like the widescreen tvs, but i’m not sure how they would handle non-HD tv braodcasts.

  28. Chris Hester says:

    “Now aren’t the television designers lucky to have just two, predictable widths to deal with?”
    You made a very interesting point there – whatever the TV screen size, unlike computers, the image scales to fit! Compare this to a web page designed for a small screen using a fixed layout. On a huge screen, it’ll appear tiny in the corner. Or if a liquid layout was used, the lines will be stretched massively across the page. The font size never changes to match the screen size! (The only exception is some Flash pages I’ve seen where everything did indeed scale.)
    Regarding widescreen formats, I believe when Technicolor movies like Westerns came out in the 40s (?) they used a very wide format, one which no current TV would be able to show without black borders above and below.
    Later, the standard widescreen format was devised for TV and DVD. But companies like the BBC also use an inbetween format that is classed as widescreen, but really just looks like 4:3 with a couple of thin bars added.
    It’s like web standards – everyone seems to have a slightly different set of rules they go by. (Let’s not mention recordable DVD here.) Why can’t there ever be one fixed format? Or would that not allow for local variations, or future changes as new technology comes about?

  29. Anja says:

    Perhaps, to confuse things some more: I’ve watched may *normal TV* extra hard last night and there it was: banner with fading/ gradient sides. Channel: Pro 7 (Germany).

  30. Gordon says:

    I’m in the UK. I have a widescreen TV. My TV will handle PAL and NSTC meaning shows that I’ve ‘taped’ from an American broadcast (ahem) can be viewed.
    Some of our programmes are broadcast in 16:9, some in a faux ‘widescreen’.
    The best moment I’ve had was watching the BBC News channel on widescreen. Obviously the assistant – who crawled into shot on one side of the screen, discretely pushed some papers up onto the desk for the presenter, and crawled back off screen again – had forgotten about widescreen TVs. I don’t think he’d have been spotted on a 4:3 TV. Hilarious!

  31. Mark Boszko says:

    I’m creating the lower thirds (that what those “informational banner[s] across the bottom of the screen” are called) for a 16:9 HD series for the History Channel right now… but the fun bit is that they’ll be broadcasting in SD not cropped, but letterboxed, so I don’t have to worry about the whole left/right crop on this one. The challenge now becomes to make the text big enough to read when it gets shrunken down for SD, but not so big that it looks silly on your widescreen HDTV.

  32. Anthony says:

    Good observations. I guess we should be happy that they aren’t filling the “extra space” for HDTV viewers with animated banner ads, while the shows run in the middle box.