By Michael Applebaum, MD, JD, FCLM

I am frequently asked about new technologies, their adoption and the history of their development.

HDTV is a technology that is becoming more prevalent and affordable.  Until just a few years ago, HDTV sets were priced in the 5-figures and there were no broadcast HDTV channels.  Now the sets are in the 3- and 4- figures (which is roughly the same number of cable/satellite channels, many of which are in HD) and broadcast HDTV is available in many areas.

Most of today's televisions and all of yesterday’s were based around a screen shape and size that works in a 4:3 aspect ratio i.e., for every 4 horizontal picture elements there are 3 vertical picture elements.  In other words, a non-HD television screen or image is in a ratio of 1.33:1 or 1/3 wider than it is tall.

This aspect ratio was decided upon over 100 years ago by the early filmmakers.  The motion picture creators who recorded moving images on celluloid adopted the 4:3 aspect ratio early on as the standard frame size for cameras and projectors.

Television wasn't a consumer product until the 1940s.  In 1941, the NTSC television standard was developed.  The extant film standard became the television screen size.

The film industry was the first to realize the limitations of the standard 4:3 aspect ratio.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it became apparent to the film industry that the 4:3 ratio was not long for this world.  Ever concerned about costs, it realized that fatter Americans no longer fit on the screen.  (America was and still is the cinema capital of the world.)  This was mostly due to the size of the extras, as “stars” were more controllable.  If a star got too big, that one got unemployed (with the notable exception of comedians).  The big screen was becoming the not-so-big screen.  To record an entire group scene, the camera either had to move farther from the action, which makes for a more boring and less involved movie-going experience, or pan across the scene to get it all in.  Panning took longer and was costlier due to additional time and film expenses.

So filmmakers experimented with different aspect ratio formats.  The various shapes and sizes for motion picture screens, were packaged under sexy and exciting  names like "Vistavision," "Panavision," "Cinemascope," "Cinerama," “Technirama,” “Techniscope.” and “Superscope.”  The assorted “Visions” and “Scopes” and “Ramas” had different aspect ratios.  For example, “Scope” movies can have aspect ratios from 2.35:1 to 2.55:1.

The result is that many films were and are shot in wider aspect ratios than standard 4:3 TV can handle.  To view these films on a standard TV, it has to be reformatted.  That is why you see the “This film has been reformatted” message on a video or DVD.  Reformatting the video causes you to lose part of the film as it was originally shot.

The television and home video industries had to do something to get people who wanted to view an entire film back in front of their sets and out of the theatre.  Remember, not only do you get to see the advertising on a rental, but if you stay home you will likely watch more TV and generate more advertising revenue for the networks.

HDTV was born in response to the television industry’s need to compete with cinema.  If you can get more of the theatre experience at home, you are less likely to leave your set and money is less likely to leave the television industry.

As you will recall, there is no fixed standard anymore for a movie’s aspect ratio.

HDTV development was a joint effort of the TV networks, TV manufacturers, FCC, USDA (Agriculture Department) and HHS, or the Department of Health and Human Services, the same people who bring you Medicare.  The last two are intimately involved in the work of national consumption and sickness and uniquely positioned to track, gather and generate statistical data about American bodies.

Analysis of the growing American width and sophisticated longitudinal projection studies indicated that an aspect ratio of 16:9 would most economically serve the needs of the television industry.  It was determined that this size offered the best compromise of cost and technological longevity.  The underlying calculation was that the American BMI would not increase above 35 by the year 2065 for more than 67% of the general population.  Film extras come from the general population.  A BMI of 35 is grossly obese.

While one specific standard has not been agreed upon, most broadcasters have adopted 16:9 as a screen size.  Many of the high definition holdouts are unconvinced that this 16:9 scale will last.  They are proposing a wider standard of 28:11 or 2.55:1.  This would create a screen with 28 pigsels across and 11 pigsels down.  (A “pigsel” is the new pigture element proposed for the wider HDTV standard.)

The advice I provide to those who ask, is to wait until the HDTV broadcast standard is decided before investing in the technology, unless they have a lot of money to burn.  As Americans continue to get fatter and fatter, it is possible that a format wider than 16:9 will prevail.