Reader Question: Black Bars on Wide Screen

Q: Is there anyway to eliminate the “side bars” from an HD picture ?
Jack Keefe

A: To paraphrase a former president, we could do that, but it would be wrong.

The “side bars” on an HD screen occur when you show standard definition content on a wide screen. The standard definition has a 4:3 aspect ratio — nearly square — while HD screens have a 16:9 wide format that is more like a movie theater screen.

When you show standard definition content (and most broadcast content is still standard definition), there are not enough pixels to fill the screen. So you if you view it at its normal dimensions, you will get a space to the left and right of the image. I recommend that you view it with the side bars showing.

You do have alternatives. You can choose a “wide mode” that will stretch the image so that it fills the screen. I don’t like this because people look short and fat and car wheels become ovals and it looks weird. You can also choose a “stretch mode” that will only stretch the edges of the image. I find this even more distracting, as objects seem to ooze from the edge of the screen. And if you have dialog with two characters facing each other, the images get just about surreal.

The third choice is to zoom; this enlarges the picture so that it fills the width of the screen. The problem here is that the top and bottom of the image are cut off, and I don’t like that.

As a result, I prefer to watch with the side bars.

The one exception is if I’m watching a standard definition show that is formatted for wide screen. “Law and Order” is a perfect example. Watching this on a wide screen shows black bars above, below, and beside the image. If you use the zoom mode on this programming, the original image will expand to fill the screen with no distortion and no cropping of the image. Aside from this one exception, I recommend that you leave your HDTV set to the Normal Mode setting.

Alfred