The Mystery of the Vanishing Weathermen-Aspect Ratio #360

Photo: 16:9 capture on a 4:3 display by M. Daniels from NBC Broadcast

When speaking of “Weathermen” in political circles, the term refers to the Weather Underground Organization, a militant wing of the anti-war/civil rights movement in 1970s. Unlike the vast majority of anti-war protestors, the Weathermen never shied away from violence, criminal actions, or their Second Amendment right to bear arms during the turbulent Nixon years, when the press was branded “ the enemy,” students were gunned down on campuses, and 1,353,000 people lost their lives in the Vietnam Nam conflict. (1)

The Weather Underground Organization of the 1970s has indeed vanished, but in this article I am not speaking about those Weathermen; I am speaking about my weather men, the guys who tell me when it was going to rain, who, at some point between 2008-2010, suddenly vanished from my TV screen. Granted I could still hear them talking, see the tips of their fingers pointing at the weather map from time to time, but for the most part, Bob Ryan, Doug Hill, and Topper Shutt all disappeared from my TV screen as if they had been kidnapped.

Who is the prime suspect in these serial meteorological abductions? That would be a culprit known as Aspect Ratio. And no, that is not the name of a low-level mobster or a celebrity chef; Aspect Ratio is defined as the ratio between the width and the height in an image. (2)

My little Emerson analogue TV, purchased during the Clinton Administration, had an aspect ratio of 4:3 or 1.33:1, which at the time of purchase was the television industry standard. The screen, though 33% wider than it was high, looked more square than rectangular. But in those days, because my TV aspect ratio matched the broadcast ratio, I could still see my weather people.

Then, between 2008-2010, came the paradigm shift from the standard 4:3 ratio to the wider 16:9 ratio, so as to accommodate the widescreen revolution in televisions, computer monitors and cell phone screens. Suddenly, there was a discrepancy between the image captured by the television camera at my local station and the image displayed on my geriatric TV. In the transition, I had lost about 25% of width in the images on my TV or 12.5% off each side.  Somewhere in the far left and far right edges of my screen, my weather men were being held hostage and there was nothing I could do to rescue them. (3)

Screen Aspect Ratios – Standard width defined by black lines; Widescreen defined by blue lines:  Photo from (4)


Just this past summer, the Emerson breathed its last and I finally bought a new widescreen TV.  Voila!  My meteorologists returned (Well, some of them did, as some had retired by the time I got around to updating my set). Now I can once again see everything being presented—no capture/display discrepancy.

Pillar boxes or verticle black slats filling in the extra horizontal space you get with the 16:9 ratio would have made my weather men visible again, but my Emerson did not offer that option as it was created before the implementation of HDTV.

I am almost grateful I waited until after the paradigm shift to study television production. Now, as I learn to frame shots in a consistent 16:9 aspect ratio, I am faced with solving only one set of aesthetic problems. I do not need to unlearn the techniques of framing in 4:3 aspect ratio. Also the widescreen ratio approximates the humans field of vision more closely than does the standard ratio. Filling that added 25% of screen width can be tricky in framing, especially in close-up, one-person studio shots, as there is so much field to fill, but advancements in graphics, split screens, and CG backgrounds help fill the additional space when needed.

“Imagination only comes when you privilege the subconscious, when you make delay and procrastination work for you.”  —Hilary Mantel

Read more at:

For more information check out Video Aspect Ratios at (4)


Widescreen vs. Fullscreen by Alec Burr (3)


  1. Wikipedia; Viet Nam War Casualties;
  2. Steve’s Digicams: The Difference Between a 16:9 Aspect Ratio and 4:3 Aspect Ratio:
  3. Burr, Alex; Widescreen vs. Fullscreen:
  4. Red. Com; Video Aspect Ratios:

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