Widescreen TVs, black bars, and e-books: Why complications can cause consumer conniptions

trekpillarboxLittle changes have unintended consequences.

I’m reminded of this every day at my tech support job, where I take calls supporting a prominent retailer’s store brand of HDTVs, Blu-Ray players, Bluetooth equipment, and wireless routers. Most of my work has to do with helping people set up their TVs, and one of the questions I’m most commonly asked is, “How do I get rid of those black bars to the left and right of the picture?”

The black bars are, of course, an artifact of the change in aspect ratios. As TVs got wider, older programming has to be shown pillarboxed in order to present the whole picture. But nobody ever really seems to understand this when I explain it to them. They just want to know how to “make it fill the whole screen”, even if they’re going to chop off the top and bottom of the picture by doing it.

So what seemed like a simple decision at the outset—let’s make screens wider so you get a more movie-like experience on TV in your home—just ends up confusing the average person, or at least the average person who calls tech support hotlines. And of course, all that old content isn’t going to go away, which means that people are probably going to be asking that question for years or decades—for as long as people want to watch Star Trek and A-Team re-runs, essentially.

(Not that this is the first time this problem has shown up. The original decision by moviemakers to widen their screens to try to draw people out to watch more movies eventually led to people in the ‘90s wondering why there were black bars at the top and bottom of their DVD pictures.)

I hasten to note that, as I’ve said before, these are not stupid people. They’re people whose minds are occupied by other things, apparently to the point where they can’t fully grasp the difference between TV aspect ratios. And to be fair, why should they really need to? If they were AV geeks, they’d be setting up their own equipment. There’s a tendency to want to assume that just because something is simple for you, it should be easy for anyone, and people who can’t handle it are morons. They’re not.

At any rate, these people are also the people who make up the majority of the e-book reader market. As I’ve said before, this is why Amazon has done such a stellar job of hooking people on e-books with its Kindle. They keep everything simple, by blocking off people from more complicated options (like, say, buying e-books from other stores). It’s e-books for the “how do I get rid of those black bars?” crowd, simplifying the process so everyone can understand.

(And that’s not a bad thing, either. Apart from the Kindle, I’m not sure what e-reader I would recommend to my parents. I may not like Amazon’s policies, but I can’t deny they make everything dead simple.)

Earlier today I linked Douglas Moran’s blog post complaining that the e-book market was too complicated, with too many readers necessary for reading too many books. Moran, I, and I expect most of TeleRead’s readership are tech-savvy people who can generally understand how to install applications and navigate other complications inherent in today’s e-book market, and we find this all too onerous; how much worse a time are people who puzzle over black bars on their TV screens going to have of it?

4 Comments on Widescreen TVs, black bars, and e-books: Why complications can cause consumer conniptions

  1. 9 out of 10 TV watchers will NEVER understand concepts like “aspect ratio”. I’ve found that most people prefer to have the image stretched horizontally to fill the screen rather than see black bars at the sides.

    I often walk out to the living room, notice that my wife is watching something, glance at the screen and yell out “stretched!!”. She claims not to see the difference which baffles me to no end.

    Personally I will only watch things on TV that are in the proper aspect ratio for the screen and are commercial free. TV commercials are a blight on humanity.

  2. You are right about Amazon and the Kindle. If my mother ever decided to go digital, the kindle would be my recommendation. Too many people I know have other readers that must be synced to the computer to get books and they don’t know how to do that.
    The best thing for simplicity on the Kindle is you buy from amazon -the format is right – always.

  3. My sister asked my mother once how she loads the books into her Kobo. She responded that I come over, take the Kobo away from her, bring it back and voila, there are books on it. And that’s pretty much the way it is in her world :) I have tried explaining to her how to do it herself. She just finds it easier to have the magical book fairies get the books on it during the mysterious rites they perform at my place :) As for the television, she once paid the IT guy from work to come to her house and set it all up for her. She has a printed page of instructions he left her about what buttons to press on which remotes and in what order so as to perform various operations. She still refers to it when she operates the television :)

    I love my mother. I am not saying she’s a moron by any means. But she has a very low technology threshold. It doesn’t interest her. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t care, really. As long as she can play Bookworm, watch Grey’s Anatomy and get the new Jodi Picoult, she’s happy.

  4. Media service companies aren’t making things any easier, with the 16:9 content stuck behind a premium-service wall. My grandfather is locked in a dispute with Comcast over paying $10 a month to get the HD feed turned on; until then he’s by-God going to watch stretched low-resolution content on the LCD he paid $1700 for.

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