February 18, 2007
King of the Hill Aspect Ratio Controversy Leaves Fans Asking What HD Really Is

Discussions continue about the transformation of animated shows to high-definition, this time centering around Fox Sunday night mainstays The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

Back in August, I wrote about the percentage of network programming in HD. Fox was in last place among the six networks, primarily because of the primetime animation offerings that were not being converted to high-definition.

And plenty of people since then have questioned the value of having these cartoons in HD, particularly back in December when the makers of South Park crashed their hard drives trying to create a high-definition episode. At the time, I wrote that the FAQ section for South Park Studios stated that "there have been discussions but no decisions yet" about a transition to HD.

So what does this mean for King of the Hill and The Simpsons. King was recently aired in HD on Jan. 28, giving fans hope for further experimentation with a permanent HD product. However, according to James Hibberd reports that "Fox has no immediate plans to upgrade the production of its Sunday night animated comedies due to an aspect ratio dispute with producers."

The HD episode that aired back in January was still in the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio that the SD version of the show uses, and Hibberd said that a debate broke out in the fan community about whether you could call the episode "high-definition" or not with the traditional aspect ratio.

Hibberd writes, "Though a Fox spokesperson had no comment regarding the mysterious airing, sources confirmed that King was indeed in high definition. THe rest of the current-season episodes are scheduled to air in standard definition, however, with no firm plans to convert the popular animated block to HD."

However, the plans are to eventually switch to HD. Hibberd reports that animators want to remain with 4:3 because, whereas shots are changed in live action filming by changing the aspect-ration, the problems are more "creatively disruptive" for animators. The networks are pushing for a strong drive to moving all program to the 16:9 aspect ratio.

As far as the debate among the fan community, look--for instance--at the HDTV Programming Board on the AV Science Forum. Fans debate whether the animation is HD or not. Since animation is not as easy to distinguish in HD compared to live action, and the screen size indicated SD, the fans debated whether enhanced visuals and sound really meant high-definition. The debate gets into frame-by-frame analysis to decide whether it was high-definition or not.

For instance, mrock12 asks:

Can someone explain to me how a show, where the actual video (not counting the bars on the side) has a 4:3 aspect ratio, can be called HD?

I have a chart from Miranda Technologies that shows all of the "Digital Production Formats" and only the ones that have a 16:9 aspect ratio are called HDTV. Is there another commonly accepted definition of HD? Are the network, satellite, and cable companies free to use the HD label any way they see fit?

The debate raises significant questions about what HD is. Back in September, I wrote about the legal debate about what is high-definition, particularly with legal action being taken against DirecTV for offering something as HD that lawyer Philip Cohen was arguing was not really high-definition.