Why do hotel HDTV's always have the wrong aspect ratio & bad reception?
January 17, 2014 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Without fail, every hotel I've been to in the past few years with an HDTV has most of their channels in the wrong aspect ratio and with many channels having poor reception. Worse, even the pay per view, new release Hollywood films are often shown in the wrong aspect. I can't be the first person to complain, and this seems so widespread to be a bigger problem, so I must ask, WHY!? WHY!? WHY!?
posted by Unsomnambulist to Technology (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You'd be surprised by how many people don't care or don't even notice when aspect ratio is wrong. I always am. "How can you watch that?!" "Huh?"
posted by supercres at 3:49 PM on January 17, 2014 [14 favorites]

I dunno but I bring a universal remote with me for those reasons.
posted by Cosine at 3:52 PM on January 17, 2014

Because they upgrade the TV in the room to a modern flat-screen so they seem 'with it', but they don't upgrade the back end content distribution system because they're cheap. The back end system is still standard definition. They then force the TV in the room to widescreen mode so the standard definition signal fills the screen and doesn't have black bars on the sides.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:53 PM on January 17, 2014 [18 favorites]

I was at a new hotel recently, turned on the flatscreen tv and instantly thought the same thing. Only to find out, they hid the high def channels on 30-60 ish and had the SD channels first. Way to annoy your guests, and waste channels.
posted by TheAdamist at 3:56 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

A lot of writers have tackled this question. For example:
  • How to stop people from putting widescreen TVs in stretch mode - The last few hotel rooms I have stayed in have had widescreen TVs configured like this... This is probably because I routinely meet people who claim they want to set their TV this way. They just “don’t like” having the blank bars on either side of the 4:3 picture that you get on a widescreen TV. They say they would rather see a distorted picture than see those bars. Perhaps they feel cheated that they aren’t getting to use all of their screen.
  • A 16:9 man in a still 4:3 world - It never fails. Hotels, like the overwhelming majority of Americans, have TVs with horizontally stretched-out pictures. This distortion has now become the norm. Many people now consider this strange configuration "right" and will take umbrage if you try to use the monitor's controls to restore the image to a normal aspect ratio.
  • You’re watching it wrong: Threats to the image in the digital age - In hotels across America right now, people are watching stretchy analog signals on HD sets and even cable outlets are broadcasting old TV shows like Seinfeld at 16:9, lest they field complaints about the dreaded black bars that would frame the show as it was actually photographed.

posted by mbrubeck at 4:04 PM on January 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Bringing a universal remote (and information on how to program it) with you on your trip is a good idea. But not just so you can control the TV they way you like, but because the remote control is often the flithiest object in the room.
posted by intermod at 9:19 PM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although most remotes provided for a hotel TV probably don't have menu controls, the actual TV itself might. I've used hotel TV buttons to change the setting to the right aspect ratio.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:19 PM on January 17, 2014

It is, as always, a question of money. Buying flat-panel TVs is cheap these days, getting high-definition content is difficult.

Right now, most hotels use one of two methods of getting programs to the rooms:

1) They pay for bulk commercial cable television from the local provider and split it off to the various rooms. Nobody really maintains the system and coax deteriorates over time.

2) They buy a bunch of satellite TV receivers (one per channel), run them into an in-house cable system, and split that off to the various rooms. Nobody really maintains the system and coax deteriorates over time.

Here's the problem with converting: The first system requires a receiver per television which is both expensive and prone to theft or damage. The second can't simply be converted to HDTV without swapping out all of the receivers from the satellite system and figuring out how to encrypt the HDTV signal to all of the rooms. Content providers do not want unencrypted, digital, high-definition signals running around anywhere, much less a hotel where someone can easily capture and copy the programs.

(This is why you will often see local channels in HD but pay content is still SD. The locals can be pulled in off-air in HD, unencrypted for nothing.)
posted by fireoyster at 11:25 PM on January 17, 2014

This is an aside, but if you'd like to save space, you can use a smartphone as a remote control. Newer phones (e.g. Samsung GS4) have built-in IR transmitters, but if yours doesn't, you can buy a little adapter that plugs into the audio jack. Solves the widescreen issue and the sanitation issue that intermod mentioned.
posted by spiderskull at 12:08 AM on January 18, 2014

(1) yup, a lot of people don't care, or, worse, care the wrong way (deliberately stretching)

(2) the people most likely to care in the right way are most likely to be streaming or playing downloaded content on their HD tablets and laptops, so there's not really a strong lobbying push or lots of worked-up TripAdvisor comments to motivate change

(3) the financial engine for television investments for the past 30 years has been pay-per-view, and thanks to (2) that is fading fast. Most hoteliers have essentially conceded this point and are channeling investment dollars into speedier WiFi, including two- and three-tier offerings where they can charge a premium for bandwidth sufficient for HD streaming.

(4) there is some self-help here -- aspect ratio controls are often available even on highly locked up televisions if you fiddle with the buttons, so at least 4:3 content can be forced to display properly rather than stretched -- and increasingly there is an accessible HDMI port on televisions or data hubs, which enables people to stream video directly from non-Apple devices, and in theory hook up an AppleTV or Roku as well.
posted by MattD at 3:45 AM on January 18, 2014

It's pretty-much impossible to buy a new tv that isn't HD, so any hotel that has recently updated their equipment is going to have HD sets by default. But that, of course, does not mean their cable package is HD. If it's anything like home service, HD programming is an added expense.

What you're experiencing is entirely the result of cost constraints. (and is exactly the reason I haven't moved up to an HD tv at my home. I refuse to pay extra on an already overpriced cable bill, and SD programming on an HD set often looks horrible, as you are experiencing in hotels.)
posted by Thorzdad at 5:57 AM on January 18, 2014

Anecdata but my father hates the black bars and actively tries to change the tv he's watching to either stretch or chop off part of the picture.
posted by Carillon at 9:25 AM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nobody really understands aspect ration and that includes hotel staff. I also assume that many guests play with the ratio and further screw it up. I doubt that hotel staff make any effort to check for wrong aspect ratios.
posted by Che boludo! at 11:53 AM on January 18, 2014

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