Why doesn't the BBC show films in the right way?
April 6, 2008 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I've recently asked a question of the BBC about why they're not showing films in the correct aspect ration -- even though the uk's Channel Four does -- and I'm a bit confused by the reply.

To: The BBC
From: Me
"Now that Channel 4 have instituted a policy of showing films in their correct aspect ratio if a print is available -- particularly in letterbox -- it seems a shame that the BBC as a public service broadcaster hasn't followed suit. Are there plans to change the BBC's overall policy on this so that we can see all films in the form that the director intended and not 'cropped' down to 16:9 as is so often the case."

From: The BBC
To: Me
"Thank you for your e-mail.

"I appreciate you would like to view all films broadcast on the BBC in their original aspect ratio. As a public service broadcaster the BBC attempts to transmit films with an aspect ratio that ensures the majority of viewers are able to enjoy the programming whether viewing on a 4:3 or widescreen television. To keep its costs low and to provide the majority of the public with a suitable viewing picture this may on occasion result in some films being broadcast in the 4:3 aspect ratio as this is the source currently available to the Corporation.

"To purchase films in their widescreen format will require film rights to be negotiated as new (even if we currently hold a 4:3 copy of the film) and this will result in increased costs. As you may be aware the BBC has undertaken a commitment to reduce its running costs to secure its future in the digital age.

"There is every chance that once broadcasting rights to individual films expires, the BBC will look to the possibility of purchasing a widescreen format if available.

"To this end please be assured your comments have been registered on our Reception Advice log which is made available to senior BBC management. We do welcome feedback about the technical quality of our programming output and thank you again for taking the time to send us your views."
Well that answers that question, although now I'm a bit confused about how the licensing of films for television works now. What this implies is that the BBC don't just purchase the ability to show a film but also a copy of that film and then can't get a different copy to broadcast until the licensing deal is up and they have to renegotiate. Is that how it works throughout the industry? Because FilmFour once showed a cropped version of 'The Fifth Element' and then a 2.35:1 copy only a week or too later.
posted by feelinglistless to Media & Arts (10 answers total)
Clearly I meant ratio in the question...
posted by feelinglistless at 2:22 PM on April 6, 2008

As I read it, it's not that they have to wait until the current license expires, it's that they have to negotiate a license for each copy of a film they hold. Thus, if they currently hold a license for the 4:3 version of a film, they would have to take out a new license for a widescreen version, if they wish to have that version. Thus, they would hold two licenses for the same film, which is not financially prudent.

Or, they can wait until the license on the 4:3 version expires, then take a new license on a widescreen version to replace the expired version.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:06 PM on April 6, 2008

You seem to be under the impression that they purchase single-broadcast licenses, which they don't (always) do. It would depend on the circumstance. However, if it's a film they plan on playing many times over, they'll purchase it with broadcast rights for a specific time period, which can be years. For instance, I once licensed a film I produced to Bravo! for a five year period. They could broadcast the film as many times as they wished during that time period.

While they've licensed a title in 4:3, they'll not relicense the same film in a different aspect ratio.

I suspect, but could be wrong, I suppose, that the instance you refer to with Fifth Element was that in between those two broadcasts, their license expired and when they renewed it they did so with the proper aspect ratio. I would also suspect that because of this, you will never see the 4:3 version broadcast there again.
posted by dobbs at 4:00 PM on April 6, 2008

I looked into this once in regards to the situation in Australia, and a lot of my background info came from the UK/BBC.

Thorzdad is right (which, I might point out, is pretty much exactly what the BBC's reply says): They've purchased the right to show a particular version N times, where N is a number between 1 and infinity. (I say "version" quite specifically because, depending on the distributor and the deal, they may not be allowed to hold the print in their library).

Regardless, the rights they've purchased will be specifically for, say, "3 broadcasts of the 1996 UK M-rated TV edit 4:3 version". They can purchase different rights at any time, e.g. for the 16:9 or 2.35:1 version, but it'll cost money - of course, it's cheaper to buy more playings of the version they already hold than for a different version, even if they don't hold a copy in their library.

I believe Film4 at one stage last year was notorious for playing things in the wrong AR due to slackness and stupidity, i.e. they had the 16:9 print but cropped it to 4:3 for broadcast (Ch9 here in Aus is/was notorious for this too). From what I read & see, after numerous customer complaints both have gotten better.
posted by Pinback at 4:16 PM on April 6, 2008

Dobbs: Actually I was under the impression that sometimes they do license a studio's whole output and sometimes a single film for a single broadcast. But what was interesting about the Channel 4 change is that it happened overnight for all of their films across all of their networks. On the Sunday night everything was cropped and as before and then on the Monday they began broadcasting things in the right ratio and across different film companies.

When you licensed the film to Bravo! did they use the same tape for all of those broadcasts?
posted by feelinglistless at 4:21 PM on April 6, 2008

I could be wrong about the specific instance of the BBC; I was merely commenting on the process of licensing in general. In addition, I'm in Canada and it may be completely different over there (though that would be strange). If memory serves, I also sold that particular film to a station in Australia, but for a single broadcast. As I said, it depends on the circumstance.

Had something happened to Bravo!'s copy of that tape and they requested another one, it wouldn't have been a new licensing agreement but there would have been a processing fee involved (ie, cost of another dupe, shipping, etc.).

However, the reply from the BBC seems to imply to me that their license is fixed either for a time period or for X exhibitions/broadcasts and until that number is up, they will not invest again in that title just to get it in the OAR. How BBC4 arranged what you said they did while simultaneously reducing its running cost (assuming they were still in that mode whenever this happened) is beyond me, but it sounds peculiar.

With my film, Bravo! was given a master of some sort (Betacam most likely, considering it was 1994 or so). They did not receive multiple copies and never requested more than they were given. The license has long expired and I never pursued renewing it as I'm not in that business anymore. In fact, that was the second-to-last film I ever had anything to do with from a financing/production standpoint.

For five years I also distributed films that other people produced, but that's a whole other kettle of fish with its own batch of idiosyncrasies.
posted by dobbs at 4:37 PM on April 6, 2008

Oops, I left a phrase or two out of my last sentence and it doesn't make sense as is. Should read: For five years, to the video market (as opposed to broadcast market), I also distributed films that other people produced, but that's a whole other kettle of fish with its own batch of idiosyncrasies.
posted by dobbs at 4:43 PM on April 6, 2008

At least they're not cropping the widescreen version to "14:9" in order to minimize letterboxing, or whatever the ABC claimed when I complained. As long as you're either getting a proper Pan & Scan for 4:3 or a letterboxed widescreen version, you're doing better than Australia.
posted by krisjohn at 7:34 PM on April 6, 2008

Diverging a little... But if I'm not mistaken, in Australia now most production/broadcast is in 16:9 on digital service, but still 4:3 on analogue service.

Therefore the analogue service is just a 14:9 letterbox of the 16:9 signal, which is probably the best compromise for that situation (the alternative being 4:3 center-cut, or full 16:9 letterbox). The full 16:9 letterbox is especially painful for owners of older sets when the program is actually 4:3, it then basically appears at 75% of the original size on their 4:3 set.

Producing TV in NZ at the moment, I have to produce 16:9 masters with 4:3 safe graphics and framing, as a substantial number of viewers only ever see a 4:3 center-crop of the 16:9 broadcast signal...

And now NZ has just implemented HD, with the two networks using different systems - 720p50 for TVNZ, and 1080i50 for TV3... And I still have to protect 4:3.
posted by sycophant at 3:16 AM on April 7, 2008

As the owner of an old (68cm) 4:3 set, I have absolutely no problem with a fully-letterboxed 16:9 signal, but I do have a huge problem with mindlessly cropping off the sides of a widescreen signal even if it does carefully keep all the important stuff in the middle. Pan & Scan was bad enough, but at least it re-framed and re-cut stuff to follow the action. This 14:9 junk just prevents content creators from properly using widescreen.

I'd be tempted to film in 16:7.875 so that it's a proper 16:9 when it's shown in the butchered 14:9 format.
posted by krisjohn at 11:10 PM on April 7, 2008

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