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THE MORNING BUZZ: It's A Big, Wide(screen) World Out There

29 Jan, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

A tech article in The Los Angeles Times lately lamented that if you play mainly full-screen programs on a widescreen television set, you'll end up burning the side margins of the screen, the way computer screens got permanent software images burned into them before the advent of screen savers.

Then we got a letter this week from Tom Hannah at Video Quest in Joliet, Ill., about the dilemma studios face in deciding whether to release videos in widescreen or full frame.

"In my opinion the whole full screen vs. widescreen issue is now dead. Even the cheapest DVD players …now have the zoom feature," he wrote. "A couple clicks on the zoom button and that widescreen DVD is now full-screen. I seldom hear customer complaints about widescreen any more. If the machine manufacturers had put this on from the beginning this issue would have never come up."

I think among mainstream consumers, the debate is only beginning. There is a move afoot to offer more products and programs in widescreen. The transmission and hardware trends are rapidly catching up to the software offerings.

Anyone who doesn't think so need only tune in to the Super Bowl this weekend, because Fox just announced today that "Fox Sports will televise the Super Bowl…in a sweeping new 16 x 9 digital widescreen panorama called Fox Widescreen, a format that takes full advantage of the horizontal playing field to give fans an unmatched view of the game."

Last weekend I accidentally shifted the guide button on my remote control from my menu of preferred channels to the "all channels" option and noticed that my satellite provider, DirectTV, offers pay-per-view movies simultaneously in both formats on different channels, so viewers can order to suit themselves (a great way to quantify consumer preference, by the way).

UPN broadcasts the latest Star Trek spinoff, "Enterprise," in widescreen format and Best Buy ads, probably in a subtle wink to early adopters, are formatted in widescreen.

Recently hardware makers have been promoting widescreen television sets to the masses who just a few years ago could not afford widescreen even if they'd wanted it. Many home theater-in-a-box systems come equipped with wide screens. But from a hardware standpoint, I think the real breakthrough is space.

The propellerheads have a term that applies, in this context, to square TVs: "legacy technology." Essentially that means you inherited a system promulgated because it fit with everything else that was available when it was sold or installed, like square TVs. Back when television was a newfangled gadget and sets were roughly the size of present day refrigerators, TVs were square because of the components and, I suspect, because a widescreen cathode tube TV would have been about the size of a school bus. Not especially practical for living room entertainment.

As the price of liquid crystal display (LCD) screens continues to come down, wide screen becomes increasingly more practical and affordable. Consumers can mount the screens on den walls, where they might have otherwise have hung the family's velvet Elvis, without giving up the space that makes the room a "living" area.

With these and other developments, I think the debate over full-frame vs. widescreen is far from over. For a lot of consumers, the whole issue is brand-spanking-new.

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