When FXX ran its Every Simpsons Ever marathon people quickly figured something out: the network butchered the episodes. They took the original seasons, which had been formatted 4x3 for square TV screens, and zoomed in on them for 16x9 TV screens. That meant the top and the bottom of the image were cut out to avoid having black bars on the sides of the picture. That meant the image seen was not complete, and visual jokes were being cut out totally.
For older readers this is like deja vu all over again - we came up through the era of pan and scan, when movie images were truncated to fit into square TVs. Now we find older, square TV shows being butchered to fit widescreen TVs. Just when we thought we had won the battle of presentation!
We didn't win, and I think we'll be fighting it for a little while. The next battleground: The Wire. HBO will be remastering the entire series for HD and re-airing it, finally giving the last few remaining white people who haven't gotten into it a chance. But what will the image look like? Some people have been claiming that the new version will crop the top and bottom of the image to fit it better into 16x9 sets.
BUT! There's always a but. But it seems that The Wire was actually shot on Panavision cameras in Super 35. People who watched the Amazon Prime streams last month noticed that the show was suddenly presented in true widescreen, if only briefly. But is that how it's meant to be seen? From a very good behind-the-scenes piece at CreativeCOW:
And perhaps the final contrast to the rest of high-end episodic television, The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, "The reason the show has stayed 4x3 is because David Simon thinks that 4x3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show's never been HD, even 4x3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16x9 version anywhere." As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.
Insley explained, "When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion -- David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs -- and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4x3. The DPs pretty much defined the look to be what it is now. And it's been consistent for the past two seasons."
So even if there is a 16x9 version, that's the wrong version. And so we're left with a conundrum - do we still watch a high-def version of The Wire if it's showing extra information never meant to be seen? I feel like we would be angry at HBO if they cropped the image, as FXX has done with The Simpsons - will we be as angry if they open the frame wider than was ever intended?
Here's hoping HBO does it right, remastering the show and leaving it at 4x3, the choice made by the creators.