The Good, the Bad and the Stretched

Robert OsborneThis is a story about good news and bad news. It’s also a tale of one man’s obsession with film and television aspect ratios, and why you should be too (if not obsessed at least aware).

We’ll start with the Bad News, because that’s the way my mind works. I was out of town for work last week and without Turner Classic Movies (and beloved host Robert Osborne) from Monday through Friday. Like most hotels that cater to business travelers, the Anaheim Convention Center Marriott doesn’t offer TCM on their in-room TVs. (Although they do have at least five different sports channels, including, I think, the ESPN Middle School Archery Network.) Perhaps someone, some day, can explain to me why only one hotel in my two decades of traveling for work has carried TCM. (For the record it was the Rosen Shingle Creek, which sounds like a communicable skin rash but is really a resort and convention center in Orlando.)

watch_TCMGood News: TCM has a new mobile app,  appropriately called Watch TCM, that allows cable and satellite subscribers to watch the network on their laptops, iPads, iPhones and Android devices when they’re away from home. (It was originally going to be called TCM Now, but that may have sounded too rude and demanding for a network based in the notoriously polite South.)

Bad News: Unfortunately, I can’t Watch TCM away from home because I’m a Time Warner Cable subscriber (at least until Comcast buys me) and Time Warner is the only national provider that doesn’t support the Watch TCM app. That meant I had to endure five days of TCM withdrawal. Cold turkey.

musicman_lGood News: I was able to watch TCM on my United Airlines flights, both to and from the West Coast. On Monday I flew from Newark to Orange County and watched THE MUSIC MAN (1962) live on TCM on a 15.4-inch seatback monitor, courtesy of DirecTV. And Friday night I enjoyed Bette Davis and Charles Boyer in ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1940) on the red eye from LAX to Newark.

Bad News: Like all good things in life, TCM on a Plane is not free. United charges $7.99 for “over 100 channels of DirecTV programming” (107 to be exact), along with 8 channels of recently released movies (like GRAVITY, THOR: THE DARK WORLD, and ENOUGH SAID).  It’s a bit cheaper ($5.99) for flights of two hours or less, and it’s free for first class. But the last time I was in first class was never, so I’m out of pocket $16 to watch two movies that I could have watched at home for free.

797413Good News: United’s DirecTV also offers other channels that appeal to nostalgia lovers. Over the course of my two flights, I watched The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island on TV Land, The Dukes of Hazzard with special guest Loretta Lynn on CMT (Country Music Television, don’t judge), The Golden Girls on The Hallmark Channel, and Laff-A-Lympics on Boomerang.

“Mommy, that man is watching Scooby-Doo,” a little boy sitting next to me whispered on my outbound flight.

“Actually, it’s not Scooby Doo; it’s a Laff-A-Lympics episode from 1977,” I said, while pulling out my ear buds. “Scooby is just one of the team captains on the show. It’s on Boomerang, which is channel 298.”

When I came back from the rest room I noticed that the kid and the mom had been re-seated. I’m not sure why.

Anyway. Back to the Bad News: Although the United seatback monitors are 16:9 widescreen, DirecTV appears to be sending 4:3 standard definition feeds for most channels to the United flights. That means that every one of the more than 200 TVs on both planes I rode on this week was stretching a square picture to fit a rectangular screen.

If you know me, you know this is not okay. But I couldn’t very well run up and down the aisles yelling, “There are too many motherfucking incorrect aspect ratios on this motherfucking plane!” That kind of thing can get you on a TSA Watch List.

handleGood news: Just as I was about to demand a refund for my stretched TCM (with appropriate righteous indignation), I noticed a button marked “zoom” on the upper right of my armrest keypad. Pressing this button shrinks the stretched feed back to a square, with gray bars on the left and right of the frame. (This is known as pillarboxing, because the vertical bars on both sides look like pillars.)

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, Will! You and your rants about aspect ratio. You are so cute!”

Well, that’s true. I am cute. But I also like movies and TV shows to be presented properly, the way the Creator intended. And if you don’t believe that stretching from a 4:3 square to a 16:9 rectangle is noticeable, take a look at this before and after photo from The Golden Girls.

Golden Girls

In the stretched version, Betty White looks like she stuck her hand into an electrical socket. Sure, it was the ‘80s, but the hair wasn’t that poufy. I know; I was there.

You can also see what I mean in these screen shots from Gilligan’s Island. Life is hard enough for the Skipper stuck on an uncharted desert island (it’s technically not a “desert,” but whatever) with Gilligan as a first mate; we don’t have to stretch him into clinical obesity and a Type 2 Diabetes risk.


Not surprisingly, the stretching was most noticeable in the movies broadcast on TCM. THE MUSIC MAN was originally filmed in a widescreen format called Technirama (a competitor to CinemaScope) at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. On the standard definition TCM feed (which is a broadcast as a square, like TVs used to look), THE MUSIC MAN (and just about any film made for theatrical release after the mid-1950s) should be letterboxed, with black bars above and below. And, when properly viewing the standard def (square) TCM feed on a modern, 16:9 TV, any widescreen film should be window-boxed, with black bars on all four sides of the image. This may look weird, but it’s correct. And it’s the only way to see the entire image as the director intended when you’re watching a 4:3 letterboxed source on a 16:9 TV. Those of you who don’t have TCM HD are familiar with watching movies this way. (Hello, Verizon FIOS customers!)

In fact, a 2.35 film like THE MUSIC MAN will even be letterboxed on a widescreen TV when watching TCM HD or a DVD or Blu-ray, since the film is wider than the 16:9 rectangular screen. Cable networks (not TCM), and some streaming services (like Netflix) routinely fudge this by cropping wider aspect ratio films to fill your screen, because God forbid there should be any black space.

Meanwhile, back on the plane, auto-stretching the square, 4:3 feed of the letterboxed transfer of THE MUSIC MAN to eliminate the bars on the left and right of a 16:9 seatback monitor expands the aspect ratio from 2.35 to roughly 2.55 (or greater), which is comparable to stretching Rose Nylund and the Skipper from a square to a rectangle. Here’s a comparison (notice the stretching on Shirley Jones’ hair, just like Betty White’s):

Music Man

Sadly, I couldn’t walk up and down the 30+ rows of each plane and suggest to my travel mates that they press their zoom buttons and reduce the size of the image on their screen because “you’re watching it wrong.” The only thing I could do is watch the movie correctly on my monitor, and hope that people walking past my seat would notice the difference and follow my example. I acknowledge that this is unlikely, but a man can hope.

Music Man End

Happily, we end on Good News, because my first-ever experience of watching TCM live on a plane in the correct aspect ratio – ended with my first-ever visit to the John Wayne Airport in Orange Country. As a man who stood up for his principals in countless films, I think The Duke would have approved of my efforts.


About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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28 Responses to The Good, the Bad and the Stretched

  1. Rich says:

    Now see, me? I woulda just read a book. 🙂

    • willmckinley says:

      Ha! What’s a “book”?

    • Steve says:

      Well, now it seems TCM has taken it one step further.
      They are presenting 4:3 films such as “Trade Winds” in a reduced screen size
      This produces borders on all sides of a 4:3 projector or conventional TV
      Widescreen TV’s have zoom controls and can adjust the picture as stated in this article.
      4:3 display systems do not generally have this feature.

      If someone from TCM is reading this please stop doing this. There was a big uproar when films that were widescreen were P&S presentations. They are doing the same thing now with older films. Though the content is intact the viewing experience is suffering.

  2. Carol says:

    You’re right. You are cute.

  3. I’m certain neither Betty White nor Rue McClanahan would approve of being stretched in this manner! Consternation and outrage!

  4. Therese Mageau says:

    My husband had the chance to ask Ben Mankiewicz the question about why hotels don’t offer TCM (we did the TCM cruise last year) and he said it’s because the hotels want guests to buy movies on demand from them. TCM is competition. Some hotels do offer TCM. You should start a public database of their names.

  5. MC says:

    That was hysterical! I totally understand where you’re coming from, though. Messed up aspect ratio drives me NUTS, especially seeing 4:3 stretched out to fill a 16:9 screen. It looks awful. My sister and my parents both have their TVs set up that way, and though I’ve tried to explain that what they’re seeing is oh-so-wrong, so far they haven’t changed anything. I guess some people aren’t as into TV and movies as I am and just don’t care. Imagine that!

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Melissa. I have the same problem with my sister. She has her TV on a higher refresh rate, which “smooths” the images. It works great for video games, but it ruins movies.

      • MC says:

        Yeah, that drives me nuts, too. It makes film look like a video someone took with their camcorder in 1988! Every time I babysit my nephews at her house, I want to sneakily correct all the things wrong with my sister’s TV settings. I have a feeling she wouldn’t be too happy with that, though. 😉

      • willmckinley says:

        Ha! We think alike.

  6. All that being said, it was still pretty exciting to see Boise’s Jefferson Middle School squeak into the last round of the finals this year with an AMAZING upshot during the clout competition, only to find out that their prized 11-year-old was a 23-year-old Gungdo ringer! Scandal!

  7. kelleepratt says:

    At least I know where to stay in Orlando …

  8. Wow! The Skipper looks as big as an elephant when you stretch him out. Yikes!

    Great post! You make airline travel sound so interesting. That is a gift, my friend.

  9. Eric Grayson says:

    Aspect ratios drive me insane when they are wrong. I call this the Egg People, because people have egg-shaped faces. It’s horrible. It happens in movie projection if the projectionist is an idiot, too. I hate spam on my own blog, so I won’t post the URL here, but you can search for “Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People” should you be so motivated. Yes, I got Maureen O’Hara to yell at a projectionist for me. My proudest moment of that year.

  10. Aurora says:

    Aspect ratio police!! Unless it’s GetTV??? 🙂

    Great write-up!


  11. Pingback: In Praise of Vintage: 10 Classic TV Shows + Where to Watch Them | cinematically insane

  12. says:

    You should have been equally upset about the constant channel logos and show promos on the screen!

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