Fox Sports Embraces Letterboxing

In recent years, networks and production teams have grappled with serving two TV audiences: those watching sports coverage on older TV sets with a 4:3 aspect ratio and those watching on newer DTV sets with a 16:9, widescreen aspect ratio. And although networks have experimented with delivering a widescreen production to 4:3 sets, which requires letterboxing bars at the top and bottom of the screen, no one has fully committed to it. But that has changed, with Fox Sports MLB and NFL coverage delivered to all viewers in one format: 16:9.

Fox Sports President Eric Shanks led the charge, saying it is time to produce games for HD viewers because more than half of the Fox Sports audience watches the HD broadcasts. “Producing and presenting in 16:9 allows directors, who have basically had to confine their framing to essential action at mid screen, to present images that include all the action cameras shoot.”

Artie Kempner, Fox Sports lead director for NASCAR and NFL coverage, agrees on the benefits for NFL coverage. Previously, directors and camera operators focused their attention on the 4:3 “safe area” so that viewers on 4:3 sets would not be subjected to bad framing of players and action. But that meant that 16:9 viewers were getting a compromised experience.

Those days are over for Fox’s viewers. “We can now do a better job of framing in key defensive secondary players while also shooting a bit tighter, so the viewer can see where the safeties line up in most instances,” he says. “It is a real plus for the analysts, as they are able to draw attention to formations and alignments [before the snap], something that previously could be seen only live in the stadium.”

Viewers will also be able to more quickly pick up the type of defense being run, because it is easier to see whether defensive backs are playing zone or man-to-man.

“You can also frame tighter yet see more of the action,” suggests Kempner. “For receiver isolations, you can now more easily frame in the cornerback and the safety or linebacker to show combination or ‘bracket’ coverage without making it so wide that the viewer can’t truly focus on the analyst’s point. Joe Aceti, one of my mentors and a true innovator and sport’s directing genius, would call the all-22 angle ‘antvision.’ We now can use the wider ‘X and O’ looks but see a tighter and more informative view as well.”

Jerry Steinberg, SVP of field operations for Fox Sports, says the ability to show every bit of the action makes a difference. “It’s like taking the handcuffs off the best tools that money can buy.”

And slowly, he adds, lower-third graphics and the Fox Box and brand bugs will migrate out to the corners of the screen.

The move, however, is not without its compromises for 4:3 viewers. With full-screen 4:3 images on a full-screen 4:3 set, 100% of the TV screen’s vertical lines (approximately 480 lines) are dedicated to producing the video image. But, when a 16:9 image is letterboxed on the 4:3 screen, a percentage of those vertical lines, roughly 120, are used for the black bars. That means that the video image is displayed in only 360 lines, resulting in a loss of resolution of approximately 25%.

Will other networks follow suit? At this point, executives at other national networks say they are investigating a move to letterboxing, but they have yet to make a commitment.

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