Picture Sizes on Television

Broadcasters on Virgin Media are handling the transition to widescreen differently. Viewers get the negatives every day but cannot affect the situation positively due to the absence of feedback channels. Hopefully this article will get through to the engineers and managers who can make a difference.

Content updated but incomplete on 27th July 2009. Photos from December 2007 to February 2008.

Skip to the solution, if you are impatient.


All shows must be displayed usefully on all screens in all modes.


The viewing surface. It need not be a traditional TV.
Any broadcast, including:
  • programmes;
  • films;
  • newscasts;
  • credit sequences;
  • adverts;
  • and anything else.
The normal aspect ratio.
The widescreen aspect ratio.
The ratio used by a screen or show.
Which display format the screen is using.


Screen Format (Mode)

Virgin TV has a TV display format setting:

It has the following 3 modes.

16:9 Widescreen

4:3 Letterbox

4:3 Normal

You lose the left and right edge from widescreen shows in this mode. That means:

Removing the 4:3 Normal mode seems a good first step towards tidying this mess.

Show Sizes


Filler Letterbox

Some broadcasters add a letterbox around their shows before they broadcast them. This is always unhelpful for 4:3 Shows and 16:9 Shows. It is helpful for other aspect ratios.

Eurosport Demonstrates What Not To Do

I occassionally tune in to see a 4:3 Show broadcast as a 16:9 show with a broadcaster-supplied filler letterbox on the left and right. The result on any correctly configured TV is a huge, black border around a little box of picture.

Much of the Le Mans 2009 coverage was spoilt by this. WTCC is frequently affected, too.

The 2009 MotoGP from Donnington was a 16:9 Show and was sent correctly. GP2 is usually like that, too.

Cinematic Aspect Ratios

A filler letterbox is a good thing for aspect ratios other than 4:3 and 16:9.

Broadcast these as a 16:9 Show, with a letterbox provided by the broadcaster to fill any vertical space between the show’s aspect ratio and 16:9. (I call one of these a Filler Letterbox.) I have seen TCM do this and it works well on a 4:3 Screen and a 16:9 Screen.

Another effective approach is to crop the edges of films so they can be broadcast as a normal 16:9 Show. This is what most channels do, it seems.

Arbitrary Aspect Ratios

Perhaps the ideal would be that broadcasters send exact aspect ratios and digital TV boxes understand them. They digital TV box could then add the necessary filler letterbox.

This would ensure any Show would fit nicely on 4:3 Screens and 16:9 Screens. Broadcasters would neither add their own letterboxes to nor do their own cropping for shows.

Discovery Changes for the Better

During 2007, the Discovery network had 14:9 Shows with a filler letterbox, padding them vertically into 4:3 Shows. The picture did not fill the height of the screen. You get padding all the way around shows broadcast this way on a 16:9 Screen!

In 2009, 14:9 shows are mostly broadcast as 16:9. The filler letterbox pads them horizontally, which works much better on both 4:3 Screens and 16:9 Screens. The picture fills the height of the screen with only a little padding to the far right.

Interaction of Shows, Screens and Modes

4:3 Show 16:9 Show
4:3 Screen 16:9 Screen 4:3 Screen 16:9 Screen
16:9 Widescreen Mode Full Screen Letterbox Distorted Full Screen
4:3 Letterbox Mode Full Screen Distorted Letterbox Distorted
4:3 Normal Mode Full Screen Distorted Cropped Cropped & Distorted

The interaction of any broadcaster-supplied filler letterbox is not shown.


Different channels manage their pictures differently. The solution is:

Expected Results
4:3 Show 16:9 Show
4:3 Screen Full Screen Letterbox
16:9 Screen Letterbox Full Screen

Clearly, this is the right way. It is already used by:

For the most part, the Discovery network now do it this way. Also, Dave and related channels are getting better. Sci Fi gets it right for some shows and wrong for others, curiously.


It seems broadcaster’s of more technical shows do not get the technicalities of broadcasting shows in the right size any better than other broadcasters. If anything, the reverse is true. (Compare E4 over the past few years with motorsports coverage on Eurosport or space exploration on Discovery.)