To Deliver ‘The Simpsons’ in 4:3 Aspect Ratio, Disney Plus Had to Rearchitect Its Content-Delivery System

The Simpsons
20th Century Fox Television

When Disney Plus launched last November — with all 30 seasons of “The Simpsons” — it was immediately met with a backlash from fans. The problem: Older episodes were truncated to fit into a 16-by-9 frame, killing many of the show’s visual jokes.

Disney quickly pledged to restore the classic segments to their 4:3 aspect-ratio glory. But it’s taken more than six months to do that. Starting today (May 28), Disney Plus subscribers will now be able to watch older episodes of “The Simpsons” in the original aspect ratio.

So what took so long?

Basically, the Disney Plus team had to reconfigure its content-delivery engine and build a brand-new feature to accommodate a concept it hadn’t previously anticipated: Giving viewers access to the same content but with different underlying video attributes, according to Joe Rice, VP of media product at Disney Streaming Services. And, it had to do that without breaking any of the existing features of Disney Plus.

“We needed to challenge prior assumptions and rethink how content for streaming is packaged and delivered,” Rice says.

The new Disney Plus product feature launching today — available across mobile, web and connected-TV devices — lets subscribers toggle between playing “The Simpsons” episodes in the original 4:3 aspect ratio (when available) or their remastered 16:9 widescreen formats.

A key goal for DSS was to ensure existing Disney Plus features, including Continue Watching, Watchlists, and the ability to binge by auto-playing episodes in sequential order, would still work as expected regardless of the aspect-ratio mode. As Rice explains, “The new 4:3 versions couldn’t be treated as standalone, bonus content.”

Originally, Disney said it provided all episodes of “The Simpsons” in 16:9 format at launch “in order to guarantee visual quality and consistency across all 30 seasons.” The company should have anticipated that wouldn’t go over well: FX Networks’ Simpsons World app launched in 2014 with cropped older segments to fit into 16:9, prompting a backlash that resulted in FX restoring the 4:3 segments.

It’s clear why the cropped episodes are unacceptable — in fact, Disney Plus provided examples of how shoehorning the old 4:3 videos into 16:9 widescreen format destroys “The Simpsons” sight gags (the cropped 16:9 versions are on the left; the original 4:3 versions are on the right):

Some background: Disney Streaming Services uses the MovieLabs Digital Distribution Framework (MDDF) industry standard, which defines the methods for representing content assets and associated metadata. The issue was that the existing content model assumed only one video edit (while multiple audio or subtitle components could be associated with that video asset) for each Entertainment Identifier Registry (EIDR) ID tag.

So the DSS team revamped its content model to introduce the concept of multiple media “facets,” or multiple combinations of audio, video, and subtitle components. Now, components delivered under the same EIDR ID can be grouped in multiple combinations, laying the groundwork to support user-selected aspect ratio preference while maintaining existing content interaction features.

By creating the facets-based content model, DSS also was able to reuse thousands of audio and subtitle components that already existed for the 428 episodes on Disney Plus, along with episode-specific artwork and other metadata.

According to Rice, the facets content model “opens up a number of exciting opportunities for novel ways of presenting content in the future.”

“The Simpsons” aired on Fox in a 4:3 aspect ratio from its premiere in 1989 to 2010. In 2010, partway through the show’s 20th season, it switched to a 16:9 format. The Matt Groening-created show is the longest-running primetime scripted show, and has been renewed for seasons 31 and 32.