Earlier seasons of The Simpsons are finally available to stream in its proper 4:3 aspect ratio, a task Disney Plus’ product team had to spend some time figuring out.
Aspect ratios are a big deal in The Simpsons. Fox originally aired the show in 1989, and at the time used a 4:3 aspect ratio. The show, as any fan will explain, relies heavily on visual gags — an aspect of joke-telling that wouldn’t become an issue until near the end of 2009, about a third of the way through The Simpsons’ 20th season — when the show’s aspect ratio switched from 4:3 to 16:9. When Disney uploaded all 30 seasons of the show to Disney Plus in November 2019, every episode was only available in 16:9, meaning older episodes looked stretched out, and jokes that relied on visual framing were effectively cut out.
The Disney Plus product team knew they had to fix it, but it wasn’t as simple as adding old files. Disney Plus subscribers now just have to switch a toggle on The Simpsons’ description page when they open the app. Essentially, the Disney Streaming Services product team had to rethink how content was packaged for streaming purposes, one that Joe Rice, vice president of media product, called a “fundamental change” in a new blog post.
Prior to Disney’s team packaging both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios in one content package (a group of audiovisual components including video, audio languages, formats, and subtitles), the believed assumption was only “a single version of video would be present in any given package,” Rice wrote.
The team created multiple “facets,” which essentially created flexible combinations of audio, video, and subtitle components. As part of the fix, it doesn’t matter what chosen aspect ratio people use to watch The Simpsons, but basic features like “Continue Watching” or autoplay will continue to work. This was paramount to the team, Rice explained. Those existing features were crucial to the Disney Plus streaming experience, with Rice adding that new “4:3 versions couldn’t be treated as standalone bonus content.”
Here’s a fun side-by-side to show the difference in how streams are now bundled. They’re packaged together, so once people toggle to select the aspect ratio they want, the version is pulled from the same package and everything reacts seamlessly.
“To support both the original 4:3 aspect ratio and the 16:9 versions of The Simpsons, we needed to challenge prior assumptions and rethink how content for streaming is packaged and delivered,” said Rice. “We introduced a new Disney app feature today that not only gives fans a choice in video viewing formats, but also opens up a number of exciting opportunities for novel ways of presenting content in the future.”