Question: I see the phrase "letterbox format" in TV Guide for some shows. What does it mean? Thanks.
Televisionary: It has to do with what's known as the aspect ratio.
Simply put, a motion picture screen is a rectangle while a TV set's is closer to a square. When you watch a theatrical feature on TV, you're really seeing only a portion of the picture that was projected in the theater. The sides are cut off in a procedure called "pan and scan," in which the screen follows the scene's action and ignores everything in the periphery. In the letterbox format, the movie is transferred with its original rectangular dimensions intact, which is why you see the black areas across the top and bottom of the screen.
It's worth noting that for years only hardcore fans realized they weren't seeing everything the director and cinematographer put on screen, which does make quite a difference when you consider they award Oscars for that sort of thing. In fact, those worth their paychecks put a great deal of effort into framing shots that fill the screen with interesting things to look at and all that is lost when you watch a non-letterboxed copy.
The irony is that many people dislike letterboxing because they mistakenly believe they're seeing a smaller picture when they're really seeing more of what was shot. On a large enough TV, it really does make for a better viewing experience.