Open Wide

Why The Sopranos and ER put those black bands across your screen.

Five years ago, TV producer Dick Wolf (Law & Order) tried something that no one around him thought he could pull off. He introduced a TV series, Feds, in what movie buffs call “widescreen” format: with black bars stretched along the top and bottom of the screen. The result? “The show wasn’t very successful, and some of the letters that came in to CBS were quite amusing,” Wolf told the Akron Beacon Journal last year. “I think the best one was: ‘I paid for my entire TV screen. Would you mind filling it?’ “

For nearly 50 years, stories like this have circulated through the TV industry as tales of warning. TV viewers would only accept images in full-screen, without those black bands. But turn on a TV today and you’ll see cars winding their way through curvy highways, colorful hip-hop music videos, and highly rated shows like The Sopranos, ER, and The West Wing—all, despite 50 years of industry logic, in widescreen.

What happened to the anti-widescreen masses?

Few TV executives, it seems, now remember that widescreen, also known as letterbox, was supposed to be a bulwark against television. In the 1950s, back when being a media conglomerate meant owning a movie studio and a movie house (as opposed to a studio and a TV station), studio honchos worried that the arrival of television would spell doom for film. To lure consumers out of the living room, they tried to emphasize the spectacle—the scope—of the moviemaking craft. Studios starting racing their versions of spectacle—Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision—into production.

Widescreen was a brilliant marketing ploy but also a headache-inducing turf protector. It meant that there would always be something fishy about movies viewed on the small screen. Most feature films are shot with wide lenses, so they have to be shown on rectangular screens that are somewhat wider than they are tall (as much as 2.7 centimeters across for every 1 centimeter down)—in other words, the dimensions of a movie screen at your local theater. Most TV sets, on the other hand, are roughly square (generally about 1.33:1). To show a movie on a TV screen, you have to adjust to the smaller ratio. One way is to simply crop out the sides of the picture so it’s not as wide. Another is to “pan and scan” across the image, showing only the most important part of the frame at any one time. But auteurs and cinema purists raised hell over both methods, arguing somewhat rightly that they were equivalent to lopping off the sides of a Picasso portrait so it would fit the wall.

The Blade Runner clip in full-screen mode

Then came a third, less intrusive method, the letterbox format: essentially pushing the top and bottom of the TV screen toward the middle, making it shorter, so you can fit the entire width of the image. Letterboxing makes the picture look smaller, but you see the entire picture. (To see the difference, watch the opening of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner: first in full-screen, then in widescreen.)

The Blade Runner clip in widescreen mode As classic movies were released on video, letterbox became the favored format for fans and moviemakers. In the late 1990s, commercial producers starting experimenting with ways to make their advertisements feel more “classy.” If widescreen was good enough for Brian De Palma, it was good enough for P. Diddy. A hip-hop video director named Hype Williams started to use wide lenses to jazz up his productions. And ER producer John Wells, looking for ways to bring buzz back to his medical drama, went into 16:9 mode at the start of the 2000-2001 season. As Wells explained it to the Beacon Journal: “We noticed that a large number of commercials were being broadcast in letterbox form. We called the advertising department and asked why … and they said, ‘Well, because it looks classier.’ Well, we’ve got a classy project. And I think that, increasingly, you want to be able to distinguish your show in an ever more cluttered marketplace as something that stands out.”

Widescreen has become a great fad. It doesn’t seem to matter that unlike movies, there is no technical reason to prefer the format for a TV show. Widescreen is great at showing the expanse of a landscape, but majority of TV shots are interiors and close-ups.

Also integral to the widescreen coming-out party has been the explosive growth of DVD sales. By purchasing DVDs, consumers could now see the original aspect ratios of their favorite movies, and indeed, the widescreen option became a huge selling point to get customers to upgrade from VHS to DVD. Some chain stores such as Blockbuster, in the belief that its customers will want from DVD what they got from VHS, are showing signs that they may be ready to short-stock widescreen versions on DVD.

But so far, the emergence of DVDs has generated little comment from those entertainment industry execs who have long insisted that widescreen couldn’t be popular. The dollar trends may force them to change their attitude, as a new market opens in DVDs of popular TV shows, like Buffy, The Sopranos, and The X-Files. Seventeen spots on Amazon’s Top 100 DVD list are taken by epics originally produced for the small screen.

Meanwhile, virtually every theatrical release shown on television continues to appear in full-screen. Since it’s a myth that today’s TV viewers will start letter-writing campaigns every time a movie shows up in widescreen, isn’t it time to bury the hatchet between the movie and TV worlds? After all, television has never looked less square.