Pillarboxed Broadcasts: Should I Worry About Burn-In?

After reading Why Do HD broadcasts on an HDTV Still Have Sidebars?, Norm Ruddock asked if watching pillarboxed HD broadcasts could ruin his HDTV.

Pillarboxing--displaying a 4x3 image between vertical bars on the side of the screen--is the only way to present a pre-HD TV show or pre-1953 movie on a wide, 16x9 screen without either distorting or cropping the image.

But can watching too much 4x3 programming cause burn-in on an HDTV, leaving an afterimage of the bars? Is there a danger to spending too much time watching SD stations in 4x3 mode, where your TV adds the pillarboxing, or too much 4x3 content on HD stations, where the station adds the bars?

Probably not. Historically speaking, plasma TVs have suffered from burn-in issues, but engineers have improved the technology and today the danger probably isn't great. Paul Gagnon, DisplaySearch's Director of North America TV Market Research, told me that "it's not a big issue, anymore." It's no longer much of a problem with older sets either, since age itself reduces the likelihood of burn-in.

But too much 4x3 viewing may cause uneven wear to plasma and even more robust LCD sets, producing a burn-in like effect. The amount of viewing would have to be enormous, however. Joel Silver of Imaging Science Research Lab estimates that if 80- or 90-percent of your viewing is pillarboxed, it could eventually become a problem. (Since they don't have phosphors, LCD sets can't literally burn in, but they can wear unevenly.)

Some stations get creative in their pillarboxing, displaying slowly-moving patterns rather than black bars on the side, which lessens the likelihood of a problem (and, I suspect, reminds viewers that they're watching an HD station).

Most plasma TVs have a grey bar option that also reduces the likelihood of burn-in, and you should use this when watching standard definition stations. It won't work with a pillarboxed high-definition station, however, since the station, not your TV, is doing the pillarboxing.

Add your comments to this article below. If you have other tech questions, email them to me at answer@pcworld.com, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum.

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