The transition over the past 10 years or so from the standard flat 4:3 ratio for TV screens to the wider 16:9 ratio is pretty much complete now. I’m sure there are many old-fashioned TVs in people’s homes but chances are a television displayed in a public place is a widescreen 16:9 model. And the overwhelming likelihood is that the image displayed on that screen is all fucked up.
Personally, the sight of a needlessly stretched or compressed image drives me up the wall. If I can avoid looking at the screen I will. Sometimes I can’t. On a long recent flight, with four in-flight movies shown in sequence, I mentioned to a stewardess that the television was set improperly. As everyone behind me on the plane looked on, I tried vainly and with a strong sense of my own ridiculousness to explain the concept of aspect ratio. She looked blankly at the TV as I tried to make the problem clear.
“You see Johnny Depp there? He looks like the Kool-Aid Man. He’s not supposed to look like the Kool-Aid Man.”
I could tell from her watery stare that she had no idea at all what I was talking about, or that maybe it had something to do with the black-bars controversy of the 80s and 90s, which she was also unclear on. When I overheard her talking to the other crew members I could only make out a few bits of the conversation: “Looks fine… don’t know what his problem is… Kool-Aid Man… crazy…”
I rarely even mention it anymore, as seemingly 90 percent of all TVs are set maddeningly wrong. I’ve played out this same drama many times and each new performance is a bit more dispiriting than the last. Nobody can tell the difference at all, and if they could they wouldn’t care.
I realize that I must sound like a total crank, but it seems to me that this whole acceptance of a less-than-ideal status quo, especially one that can be changed with the pressing of a button, represents a passive, degenerate acquiescence to forces we think we can’t understand or control. Maybe it’s just the tip of the iceberg, a leading indicator. We see a lot of things every day. Sometimes we realize they’re fucked up. Sometimes we don’t. But the more we stare at them the more they seem normal, even acceptable.
Even so, it seems like the logical process should work this way:
1) New wide TVs are introduced
2) People have a hard time figuring out how to adjust them
3) But they figure it out eventually, just as they eventually came to understand letterboxing,
outside of a few hold-out communities in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
4) Everyone’s happy
Instead it’s this:
1) New wide TVs are introduced
2) Though they may be easily adjusted, people accept that “this is just the way it looks now”
3) A mass hysteria descends, another facet of the powerlessness and hopelessness we all feel in the face of social and technological change
4) We adapt rather than learn or fight, our brains develop an “it’s alright” filter
Is that who we are? Has it come to this? Michelangelo, Beethoven, Shakespeare: are we the same fucking species or what?
Please, for the love of all that’s civilized and human, fix your shit. While I’ll agree that the TV manufacturers don’t always make it easy on us, there is a way to adjust it on most remotes. Often the button says “Picture,” sometimes “Image,” or “Ratio”. But it’s probably there. Use it, before we drift even farther away from what should be an extended cultural and technological golden age and into this retrogressive tar pit of stunted humanity and unchecked moribundity.
Fuckin’ do it. Fix it!