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News » TV & Games

Boxed In

Blowing the lid off the widescreen/letterbox conspiracy.



Widescreen advocates are a passionate bunch, in a psychotic sort of way. They’re movie buffs vehemently opposed to the “pan-and-scan” process that theatrical films are subjected to when being reformatted to fit on a TV screen. Since most films are three times as wide as they are high, portions are routinely cut off the sides to accommodate the less rectangular tube. Yes, you may be missing some vital peripheral action in that special 3 a.m. TBS presentation of Cyborg Cop II, cinema aficionado.

Tube Stops
  • Thursday, Nov. 22: Movie: Cool as Ice (VH1, 6 p.m.) Supa-Fly Dope Thanksgiving Movie Alert: A white rapper (Vanilla Ice) rolls into a small town on a really gay bullet bike and tells the local square chick to “drop that zero and get with the hero.” Isn’t this what Thanksgiving’s all about?

  • Friday, Nov. 23: Making the Band Marathon (MTV, 8 a.m.-11 p.m.) Fifteen hours of O-Town and their epic climb to the middle of the charts! Exhausting luxury tour-bus rides! Oily managers! Sucking ass at the Miss America Pageant! Plummeting album sales! Screaming girls! Jacob punching out a record company weasel! Oh, the humanity!

  • Saturday, Nov. 24: Ally McBeal Viewers Choice Marathon (FX, 1 p.m.-3 a.m.) FX watchers vote for the 14 episodes they want to see most. Not surprisingly, every one that features Ally making out with another woman is included, as is the rarely seen ep that actually has a courtroom scene.

  • Sunday, Nov. 25: Chris Isaak Show Marathon (VH1, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.) Cancel that Showtime subscription—the hysterical/musical Chris Isaak Show is now also running on corporate cousin VH1 … minus the nudity, sex and gratuitous foul language. Well, OK, keep the Showtime.

  • Monday, Nov. 26: What’s Next? (The WB, 8 p.m.) Irritating Teen Entertainment Special Alert: Angel and his stupid letterbox are shoved aside tonight so Mandy Moore can hurry and interview flash-in-the-pan artists like herself before everyone’s lifeclocks begin blinking. If you got that Logan’s Run reference, you’re too old to be watching this, gramps.

  • Tuesday, Nov. 27: Movie: Whatever (1998, Independent Film Channel, 9:30 p.m.) Liza Weil (Paris from Gilmore Girls) stars as a dysfunctional ’80s teen delving into sex, drugs and barely-audible dialogue on cheap grainy film—you know, the usual Independent Film Channel stuff.

  • Wednesday, Nov. 28: Special Unit 2 (UPN, 8 p.m.) Kate attends her 10-year high school reunion, only to discover a gang of monsters intent on massacring her old classmates. So, what’s the problem here?
  • On the other hand, whenever you click on a movie with those black strips across the top and bottom of the TV screen, you’re watching the widescreen (also tagged in the negative sense as “letterbox”) format. This is the way it was intended to be seen, and it’s a reasonable trade-off to preserve the movie’s original integrity. I have no problem with this noble practice, no siree, so hold your all-caps e-mail screeds, widescreen warriors.

    The practice of producing TV shows in letterbox format, specifically for television shows that will never jump the other way for a run at the fuggin’ multiplex, however, is an idiotic trend right up there with stacked “informational” crawl screens on CNN. (“Look! In the upper quarter-inch of the screen! Paula Zahn’s eyebrow!”) Broadcast technology is making TV pictures clearer all the time and these pinheads keep dreaming up ways to obscure ’em.

    NBC’s ER started this crap last season, introducing the pretentious black-strip gimmick to lend a “theatrical” air and prop up a flagging show well past its prime, even though ex-star George Clooney took time out from his own sputtering movie career to comment that it “looks classy.” Uh-huh. The only “classy” part of ER anymore is Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston), one of the few characters on TV I’m willing to watch through a mailbox slot … that didn’t come out right at all—damn your black heart, widescreen!

    Somehow, ER struggled through six full-screen seasons before switching to letterbox, but fellow NBC critical darling The West Wing decided to go topless and bottomless in its third term, which began its self-important run last month. Now, do the obligatory flashback scenes from last season simply have artificial black strips laid across them to blend in with the new widescreen format, or has The West Wing been shot in widescreen all along and viewers were cheated out of two-thirds of the picture for two seasons? NBC isn’t talking—publicists for The West Wing declined to comment when contacted for this conspiracy-shattering story. First the flaming liberals conveniently dispose of Republican hottie Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), now this.

    The Sci-Fi Channel’s recent unwatchable Squintvision presentation of Willow aside, science fiction and fantasy movies are perfect for widescreen—again, that’s movies, not television shows meant for the small screen in the first place. The WB’s Angel—in many ways superior to the series from whence it spun-off, Buffy the Vampire Slayer—went to letterbox this year for no apparent reason other than to piss me off.

    According to a press quote from executive producer David Greenwalt (like NBC, The WB choose not to contribute to this Pulitzer-worthy exposé), “The format lends itself to the production quality and action sequences of Angel.” No argument on the production quality and action, Dave, but come a little closer … bit more … lean in here … IT’S A TELEVISION SHOW! NOT A MOVIE! YOU’RE PRODUCING IT FOR TV! MAKE IT FIT THE SCREEN!

    Which brings us to UPN’s Enterprise, the new Star Trek series that had the huevos to debut in widescreen this season and, surprisingly, the revenue-starved Utterly Pathetic Network didn’t sell the advertising space within the dark bars.

    Babylon 5 made sci-fi-geek chatroom noise years ago when it was leaked that the producers had simply superimposed the nefarious black strips over the screen to give the “classy” impression of widescreen—who’s to say Enterprise isn’t doing the same thing? Thanks to my own inside sources, I have the answer and … u

    [Due to formatting constrictions, the final paragraph of this week’s column has been cut off to preserve the original—and classy—vision of the author.]