In March of 2003, the 75th Annual Academy Awards were held at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, California. But this particular year marked a unique turn of events for the broadcast, as it was the first time a major awards show was broadcast in high definition. I remember the day well, as my friend Ian and I were excited about a major live HD broadcast (outside of the Superbowl). Ian and I had both previously invested in Sony WEGA HDTVs (admittedly motivated by our our growing XBOX HD games library), but it was on this day that we paid a visit to our friend Mo Bash at Good Guys to buy an HD antenna. At the time, HDTV over cable was virtually non-existant, and satellite providers only offered a few HD channels at a premium. So the easiest way to get HD in major cities in the early 2000’s was (oddly enough) for free over the airways. Atop our Hollywood apartment roof, Ian and I pointed my newly-bought HD antenna northeast towards Mt. Wilson where we had a direct line of sight.That evening, Steve Martin opened the show with his 2nd hosting of the awards. As I recall, the picture was amazing – as HD antennas delivered the better picture quality since airway HD transmission was far less compressed than that of satellite or cable HD transmissions. But what I remember most about that night was when Steve Martin seemingly spoke to Ian and I in my apartment. In the opening act, Martin made a crack (almost like an afterthought) and said “Folks, there is something else exiting tonight: tonight marks the first time the Academy Awards is being broadcast in high definition!” Ian and I looked at each other and laughed. Then Martin smirkingly looks into the camera, waves at it like you wave at a big fish tank, and says “So I hope it looks good for those two guys watching this in HD at Good Guys!”Moments like that are fairly frequent in my life – I’ve been blessed enough to recognize the numerous times in which our ideas and desires are validated by society as truly “ahead of the curve.” Ian and I didn’t invest in HD so we could watch the Academy Awards or play XBOX games in HD because it was new and cool, we did it simply because it felt right.
Over the next two years, the major networks really started a well advertised push towards routine HD broadcast. It was at this time I started to document trends that I noticed as the market began to shift. I started logging TV shows that broadcasted in HD and noticed the sitcoms (which were much easier to post since many of them were switched) went to HD first. Then I noticed how primetime dramas started to go to HD: new dramas were pushed to HD first whereas renewed dramas tended to stay in SD and were unconverted to a pillar-boxed HD signal. Eventually, networks and movie channels started broadcasting movies in HD. On November 7th, 2004, I witnessed one of the most amazing pictures I’ve ever seen at home prior to BluRay some 6 years later: The WB broadcasted The Lord of the Rings in HD. I took a picture of my Sony WEGA television that night, which was a 4:3 1080i TV that displayed 1.78:1 images in 1080i 16:9 as well (this model of dual CRT was called the Sony VChip). This was broadcasted over the air on a digital transmission on channel 5.1.
As HD broadcast was still a premium, from the years of 2002-2006, over 90% of commercials stayed in SD, as many broadcasters increased the rates for HD broadcast which delayed the time in which commercials would be broadcast in HD. By 2007, the cable market was about 2 years behind the networks when it came to routine HD broadcasts, but as some major satellite and cable companies merged, the consumer was able to find HD cable channels when the providers dropped most of the HD premium costs.
Now the original aspect ratio for The Lord of the Rings was 2:35:1. But when it aired on HDTV, was reformatted for 1.78:1, which made sense at the time since a 16:9 television was still fairly rare until 2006. What I witnessed over the next 4 years was a very interesting trend: at the same rate as the sales of widescreen aspect ratio televisions increased, so did the aspect ratios of the broadcasted content. The Lord of the Rings was just the beginning in commercially underwritten widescreen feature presentations. As all TVs started going wider to the general public, more and more programs ended up being broadcasted in 1.78:1 and by 2008, HD commercials finally started to outnumber the pillarboxed spots, which are fairly rare to witness on HD channels today. And in 2009 as this widening trend unfolded, Philps made a monumental achievement by creating the first 21:9 home theater television. That’s a 2:33:1 aspect ratio, perfect for original aspect ratio home theater presentation of all aspect ratios.
But perhaps the most exciting thing about this is the nearing of all original aspect ratios. When televisions were primarily 4:3, 16:9 content was rare. Remember when you accidentally bought the “full screen” version of DVDs when you meant to buy the “widescreen” version??? (I accidentally got stuck with a lousy copy of TROY in 4:3). But with the near total elimination of 4:3 screens, nearly all broadcasting is done 1:78:1 or (at worst) letterboxed 4:3. The best part of this is broadcasters and movie-channels started broadcasting films in their original aspect ratios. In December of 2008, I witnessed my first original aspect ratio feature presentation on basic cable. It was a broadcast of Titanic on TNT in it’s original 2:35:1 aspect ratio. This was a major step in the right direction as a scope movie was actually played on basic cable in scope! As the months and years went on, more and more shows were broadcasted letterboxed in their original 2:35:1 and 2:40:1 widescreen aspect ratios. But pushing the boundaries even more in 2010, I noticed a new trend starting to unveil in broadcast, it was a widescreen 2:35:1 presentation of commercial content.In the 3rd and 4th quarters of this past year, a surge of commercial campaigns started being shot and distributed in 2:35:1. Many of these spots were TV trailers of feature films, but alongside the feature films was the widescreen presentation of dozens of commercial products and companies.
From bank and cereal commercials, to video games and, of course, feature films, it seems as though the ability to promote the highest production value content can be heightened by increasing the horizontal pixel count. This is only possible when the exhibition of the average consumer can support it on a physical and conceptual level. In other words, the widescreen TVs need to be in place and the consumer needs to be acclimated to routine letterboxing. Below are some examples of this as I photographed them for research off my living room television from my phone. Though the quality of the pictures isn’t very high, the story they tell is that hundreds of content providers are starting to conceptualize, create, and distribute their images wider and wider than ever before.
What this means is that nearly all content is making its way through a widening trend. With commercials and broadcasted feature films displaying in their native 2:35:1 aspect ratio, it tells me that consumers are truly acclimated to widescreen format presentations. What this also tells me is that our world is in store for another widening trend yet to come. When the distribution and display devices such as widescreen televisions catch up to the capture mediums, I think it suggests that another round of widescreen presentations is right around the corner for feature filmmakers. Feature films have always been the trend setters – which is why so many other mediums emulate what they see in feature film story telling techniques. This means that cameras will need to begin offering wider apertures for image capture and storytellers will want to widen their composition to bring something fresh to audiences and advertising platforms. This is actually a fairly logical evolution since wider images better represent what we see as people from our eyes. Our eyesight lets us see nearly 5x horizontally than we do vertically, and therefore a wider image feels very natural to a viewing audience.
So what can we expect next? My guess is that we are in the last stages of digital cinema cameras shooting in a 1:78 aspect ratio (at least I hope so). Traditionally, the average digital cinema pro (and prosumer) camera shoots 16:9, but I believe this is no longer going to satisfy the content creator of tomorrow since these aspect ratios do not satisfy a wider landscape. Cameras will continue to widen, and I think the opportunity for wider presentations in theaters and advertising platforms (such as Times Square and computer displays) will also widen to 21:9 and beyond. The options are encouraging: Landscape is how we view our world and it’s how we organize things. Look around hour house – it’s arranged in longer horizontal spans than vertical. Even your computer screen is based around a wider landscape orientation. With a wider TV and computer, websites won’t have to scroll down as much, documents won’t overlap so much, and movies will immerse viewers as a larger percentage of their field of view is taken up by the screen instead of a wall.