Disney+ will fix the 16:9 aspect ratio in 2020 that is ruining subtle jokes

Launched in the US on 12th November, Disney+ displays in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. This is causing viewing issues for older shows shot in 4:3. So how are Disney+ going to fix the problem, and which shows are affected?
Disney+ viewer interface on a tablet
Disney+ launches in the UK in March 2020. Image: Disney+

What is the difference between new and old aspect ratios?

One of the big draws of Disney+ is the extensive back catalogue of iconic shows and movies it offers. Due to launch in the UK in March 2020, the channel will offer all the classics as well as more modern offerings from the likes of Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars.

The oldest movie available is Swiss Family Robinson (1940).

This poses a bit of an issue. Prior to HDTV becoming the norm, most TV series were shown in a 4:3 aspect ratio. High Def modern TV tends to be shot in 16:9.  As most TVs now have HD screens, we are all pretty used to the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. These make sure the picture fits the screen, without being stretched.

Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of width to height. So a 4:3 aspect ratio means that every four inches of width has three inches of height, and produces an image 33% wider than it is high. Modern 16:9 widescreen images are 78% wider than their height.

The 4:3 ratio has been used since the 1940’s and 50’s, replaced by 16:9 when movie producers saw the potential to create bigger pictures to better showcase their shows to viewers.

Disney+ character line up showing Moana, The Incredibles, Iron Man, Darth Vadar and a Panda from National Geographic
Disney+ will offer releases from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars & National Geographic. Image: Disney

Which shows in the Disney+ back catalogue are shot in 4:3?

The complaint from Disney+ viewers centres around the first 19 of the 30 seasons of The Simpsons.

Disney decided to show these seasons in widescreen 16:9. This means that the images are cropped, and in many cases this removes vital parts of the imagery which are what makes The Simpsons so funny.

The statement from Disney in response to the complaints says;

‘We presented “The Simpsons” in 16:9 aspect ratio at launch in order to guarantee visual quality and consistency across all 30 seasons. Over time, Disney+ will roll out new features and additional viewing options. As part of this, in early 2020, Disney+ will make the first 19 seasons (and some episodes from Season 20) of “The Simpsons” available in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, giving subscribers a choice of how they prefer to view the popular series.’

Are there any other teething problems?

One of the annoying factors is that Disney+ had previously stated that all shows would be released in their original formats. Check out their response to exactly this question as published on Twitter. Sounds like somebody in Customer Services dropped the ball!

Another reason for a less than magical experience was the repeated outage errors on launch day. Viewers received an error message saying ‘There seems to be an error connecting to the Disney+ service. Please try again later if the issue persists.’

Disney put this down to demand exceeding expectations. Customers also complained about very long queues to contact customer services to fix their connectivity issues. I’m not sure about the reasons given by Disney. There has been a lot of excitement about the platform, with expectations that Disney will be a key new competitor for streaming market leader Netflix. Surely they were expecting high levels of demand?

Customer Service exchange between a viewer and Disney+ saying that all shows on the platform would be shown in their original format
Disney+ previously told viewers that all shows would be screened in their original format. Image: Twitter

When is the problem going to be fixed?

Perhaps it’s good news for UK audiences that they will have access to the platform five months later than US viewers. By this time, all the bugs should have been fixed.

Disney say that The Simpsons episodes affected by the aspect ratio will be released in their original 4:3 format in ‘early 2020’. It also sounds like the connectivity issues and lengthy waits for customer service assistance died down after the first day.

They’ll need to get their act together by then! HBO Max is due to launch in Spring 2020. This could be the streaming platform to rival all others being home to epic hits such as Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, and True Detective. I think that HBO will be a major new player in the competition for streaming audiences.

Well, they do say ‘even miracles take a little time’…

Are you a Disney+ subscriber? Have you experienced any other problems we haven’t heard about? Planning to subscribe next year when the platform launches in the UK? Let us know your thoughts!

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