Fans of The Simpsons believe nearly every frame of it contains jokes — not just the frame, but every part of the frame.
That’s why many of them had mixed reactions last fall when Disney first offered The Simpsons on Disney+, its direct-to-consumer streaming service. Because the show has been on the air since 1989, its library spans both the 4:3 (square-ish) and 16:9 (rectangular) aspect ratio eras, but the older episodes were cropped as part of the conversion to 16:9 for streaming. Days after launching Disney+, the company promised it would work to make both aspect ratios available in 2020.
Six months later, the company has delivered, enabling viewers to toggle between the two based on their preference or how they were used to seeing it over the course of its run. On Thursday, Joe Rice, VP of Media Product for Disney Streaming Services, described the complex effort to add a new feature spanning more than 30 years’ worth of episodes. One reason the project was fast-tracked was that Disney had seen the show instantly become one of the top titles on Disney+, as it had hoped when shelling out $71.3 billion for most of 21st Century Fox in 2018.
During the show’s first decade on Fox, it aired in 4:3 standard definition before moving to 16:9 high-definition during its 20th season in 2009. All episodes were upgraded to HD and uploaded to Disney+ but in order for the image to fill more rectangular-shaped TV sets, images had to be cropped, which undercut the effect of many of the show’s gags. Adding insult to injury, many fans consider the show’s early years to be its most consistently satisfying.
Engineers’ goal, Rice said, was “providing a choice as to which format to watch, especially for our super fans” via a brand-new product feature.
In streaming, however, developing any new feature is a complex undertaking. The aspect ratio job was no exception. Blending video images with metadata, subtitles and audio tracks, the objective is to keep everything in sync and make it readily accessible to viewers. Rice said essentially a new unit — called a “facet” — was created during the project. In addition to creating properly proportioned facets, the team had to be sure that general product features like “continue watching” or autoplay would still function regardless of aspect ratio.
Scale was also a background element to the project. Disney+ is still expanding around the world, but in more than a dozen territories it has already amassed nearly 55 million subscribers, so the tweak would affect a large number of accounts.
Rice didn’t shy away from tech talk in his explanatory post, which was filled with schematic drawings and acronyms. The MovieLabs Digital Distribution Framework, or MDDF, he wrote, “is a suite of standards and specifications created with the goal of achieving digital supply chain automation between content providers and the platforms that stream content to customers.”
In a passage better suited to the layman, he described the project as “a fascinating challenge to meet.” Developing solutions for The Simpsons, he wrote, has revealed “exciting opportunities for novel ways of presenting content in the future.”
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