Is It Safe? Part 1

Throughout my career as an editor, I have been asked, “Is it safe?”

Though not as painful as a certain scene in Marathon Man, the question in this day and age is less easily answered.

By “safe” people mean “Is it Title Safe?” What is Title Safe? It’s an area of a video frame that should be visible to the viewer on most television displays—without being cut off or distorted.

When televisions were CRTs, parts of the edges of the image were cut off on the picture tube. The amount cut off wasn’t specified in any kind of standards and it could change from model to model due to the analog nature of the electronics that controlled the image display. Components would age, AC power might change and this could lead to a small picture on the CRT.

The term for this is “overscan”—areas of the image located at the top, bottom, left and right parts of a scene that were concealed by the bezel or frame around the screen. If the scanning resulted in a smaller image or it wasn’t centered properly, the bezel would hide it.

This also meant that some TVs would cut off the edges of the picture more than others. Usually, the very edges of the frame didn’t have meaningful content—or so it was thought. If you saw the front of the horse near the edge of the screen you could assume that the back of the horse was just off-screen. But when it came to displaying text, if something cost $9,500 and you cut off the last zero, that would have a significant impact.

Title Safe became a way of making sure all text would be visible. It’s an area of the screen most TVs wouldn’t cut off. Although there was no broadcast standard, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) came up with the recommended practice of Title Safe. It’s an area that was reduced by 20 percent in each direction—horizontally and vertically.

If you put a piece of text inside the “safe” area, you were confident that most TVs would show the text without cropping it. While it wasn’t a broadcast standard, most stations and networks would flag or reject content from producers if the text was outside of Title Safe. Broadcast monitors and later editing applications would have overlays to show where Title Safe was to help with placing type.

There was also a specification called Action Safe—a reduction of the image by 10 percent horizontally and vertically–where it was thought you could allow non-text elements of the scene to appear without the viewer missing the context of the action.

All of that was because of CRTs. Now that we’re all using flat panel displays, what about Title Safe? Is it still an issue? Yes and No. I’ll explain next time.