It's part of a show about nothing

Travis Fischer
Mid-America Publishing

Why would you spend $500 million for the rights to air a television show and only decide to broadcast a portion of it?

That is the question Netflix is getting asked following the release of "Seinfeld" on their streaming service. Not that Netflix doesn't have all 180 episodes available to watch, but that the episodes themselves are missing a substantial amount of visual information due to the unfortunate practice of reframing old 4:3 television shows for modern 16:9 screens.

Which is, astoundingly, still a thing in 2021.

It's amazing how history repeats itself.

Okay, let's get some back story.

Once upon a time, when televisions had actual dials on them and weighed approximately three tons, the standard aspect ratio for home viewing screens was 4:3.

This famously created a conundrum for the home release of theatrical movies, which were created for much wider 16:9 theater screens. For years, the standard solution was to simply crop the image, trimming the sides until the 16:9 movie fit the 4:3 space. This was done for television broadcast airings and for home video alike until enough consumers said, "Hey, we'd kind of like to see the entire movie at home. Not just two thirds of it."

Thus came the "widescreen vs. fullscreen" debate, because for every cinephile demanding to see their movies in their original aspect ratio there was a casual viewer complaining about the "black bars" on the top and bottom of their television.

By the late 90s, there was enough demand for both formats to support separate home releases. VHS boxes were often marked to indicate whether the movie inside would be presented in widescreen or fullscreen. This continued as DVDs transitioned into the dominant home video format, though DVDs had the added advantage of often being able to support both versions of a movie on a single disk.

Eventually though, the market spoke. The debate, if you can even call it that because people that wanted "fullscreen" movies were clearly in the wrong from the start, was over. Demand for widescreen movies grew to the point where it was no longer necessary to produce cropped alternatives. The issue was ultimately rendered moot as HD televisions arrived on the scene, standardizing the 16:9 ratio for home viewing.

The transition took about a decade, but now pretty much everything, from broadcast television to theatrical films to YouTube videos is presented in the 16:9 ratio.

Ironically, standardizing our home screens to the same ratio as theaters has created the same problem it was trying to solve, but in reverse.

Sure, we don't have to worry about our 16:9 movies getting cropped to fit our television screens anymore, but now pretty much every television show created in the 20th Century no longer fits in our TV without "black bars" on the sides.

And so, having learned literally nothing from the last 20 years of format debates, media companies are still putting out cropped offerings. This time it's not movies getting cropped, but old television shows. Now instead of losing a chunk out of each side of the frame for movies, we are losing the top and bottom of the frame for classic TV.

Fortunately, this isn't nearly as endemic as it was back in the days where every home release was "modified to fit your television." A lot of classic television shows you can find on various streaming services are presented as they originally aired.

On Netflix, classic sitcoms like "Saved by the Bell" and "Major Dad" are shown in their original aspect ratio. Likewise, you can find "Cheers" and "Frasier" on Hulu in their all their 4:3 glory.

Unfortunately, the biggest offenders seem to be the most high profile shows, which were often "remastered" for DVD or syndication during that transition period between 2000 and 2010 when the entire industry was rushing to put out 16:9 content whether it should or not.

This includes "Seinfeld," which was given an HD remaster in 2008 for syndicated reruns. It was this version of the series that has been utilized by streaming services for the last several years, previously Hulu and now Netflix.

This means that, for more than a dozen years now, a season eight episode has featured Jerry and George obsessing over a pothole that can't be seen in the frame. (Unless you're watching on the DVD set, which is currently the only way to watch the show in its original format.)

Somehow, even after the entire television market adopted a new standard of TV screen so they could better watch movies in their intended aspect ratio, media companies are still convinced viewers would rather have their media cropped than not utilize every square inch of their television at all times.

You would think they'd learn by now.

This same problem caused a stink seven years ago when FXX began re-broadcasting episodes of "The Simpsons," presenting the first 19 seasons in a zoomed in and cropped 16:9 format rather than the 4:3 format it was created in. Like "Seinfeld," the cropped image cuts off several visual gags for the sake of filling every corner of the viewer's screen.

One would think the negative response would have taught somebody somewhere a lesson, but when Disney+ added "The Simpsons" to their streaming service they did the exact same thing only to relent six months later by adding an option to view the show in its original aspect ratio.

Perhaps Netflix will eventually do the same for "Seinfeld," but how is this a debate we're still having? Half of us are watching content on phones or tablets that aren't 4:3 or 16:9 anyway.

Nobody cares about black bars. Just leave well enough alone.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and kinda fell down a rabbit hole here, so we'll continue this next week.



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