Why Doesn’t the Picture Fill the Screen?

May 27, 2009 | By | Comments (2)

On Monday, my husband and his buddy spent much of the day hanging our new, Sony Bravia 52-inch flat screen high-definition TV on our living room wall. I'm being generous when I say "our TV" because the truth is, this was very much his purchase. I was not consulted on the model, the size, or the features. It doesn't matter that I write about technology for this Web site, or that in a past life I worked for a leading public television station where the terms 16:9, HD, and letterbox were part of the organizational lexicon.

No, this TV purchase was his and his alone. He was proud of the deal he got online at Abe's of Maine and like a kid at Christmas, he couldn't wait to flop down on the couch and watch some HD sports programming on his new widescreen set.

So I had to giggle when I joined him on our old couch—yet to find its new permanent placement in the family room—and saw what are often described as "black bars" on the left and right sides of our new TV screen. "What gives?" my husband asked. "How come the picture is not taking up the whole screen? Isn't this an HD channel?"

Ah yes. "You may be on an HD channel," I explained, "but the program being broadcast right now is not an HD program. That's why you are seeing the black sidebars."

Sidebars are used when non-HD content is displayed on HDTV's with aspect
ratios of 16:9. Stretch is a tool that can be deployed on some HDTV's to stretch a standard 4:3 image
to fit a 16:9 screen
, but the picture can get distorted in the process. You see, while the terms digital television and HDTV are commonly used interchangeably, they are not the same thing.
And herein lies the confusion.

DTV refers to all digital television. HDTV is the highest quality form
of DTV. But not all digital television is high-definition. Do you follow?

Snapshot 2009-05-26 20-19-57Fortunately, more and more television content today is being produced in HD and there are simple ways to find HD programming. A majority of the new programs on PBS, for example are in HD. Several great Web sites including Engaget HD and HD Sportsguide tell you how to find the TV programs made for your new HDTV set. And program listings accessed through your cable guide will often have an HD icon.

While watching a nature documentary in HD is truly something to marvel at, I can't say I'd necessarily feel the same about my favorite cooking shows on the Food Network. Does seeing a sweaty tomato really add something to the viewing experience?