It’s Not Just You: Classic Shows Are Different on Streaming

Photo Courtesy: Justin Media/iStock by Getty Images; NBC/NBC Universal/Getty Images; Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Picture this: One of your favorite old-school TV shows finally comes to a streaming service, and you settle in for a nostalgic binge. But as you start watching, something seems a little off. You keep thinking that certain scenes look different from how you remember them. And was that always the theme song?

Don’t worry — you’re not imagining things. To put your mind at ease, we’re explaining why some classic shows really do look and sound different on streaming platforms.

It’s All About the Aspect Ratio

Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld. Photo Courtesy: NBC/NBC Universal/Getty Images

Let’s take Seinfeld as an example. Hardcore fans were excited to hear that the classic show was heading to Netflix. But when it dropped, some fans called foul. What was the trouble? It all comes down to the aspect ratio — or the ratio of an image’s width to its height.

The original broadcast aspect ratio of Seinfeld was 4:3 — the standard for the square TV screens of the late 80s, when the show premiered. As modern-day TV screens have gotten wider and wider, many streaming services now release older shows in a 16:9 aspect ratio to match. But going from 4:3 to 16:9 requires some drastic zooming and cropping — and that kind of edit can cause carefully planned visual jokes to disappear from the frame.

For example, in the season 8 Seinfeld episode called “The Pothole,” a pothole is clearly visible in 4:3 aspect ratio. But in the widescreen crop, the pothole disappears, leaving Jerry and George gesturing at nothing. And it’s not just Seinfeld — the aspect ratio switcheroo is a common problem among old-school TV shows that head to streaming. 

Disney+ Restored the Original Simpsons Aspect Ratio

Photo Courtesy: FOX/IMDB

The early seasons of The Simpsons aired in 4:3 — but when the show came to Disney+ in 2019, those seasons appeared in a widescreen crop. And fans were quick to point out just how much animation was missing from the beloved series.

For example, one episode featured a van marked “Clumsy Student Movers” and showed one of those clumsy movers dropping a lamp at the bottom of the screen. But thanks to a vicious crop, the whole visual joke disappeared on streaming.

Luckily, Disney+ responded to fan complaints. Now if you want to watch Homer’s hijinks in the original aspect ratio — and see all the original animation — all you have to do is choose 4:3 in a new aspect ratio toggle option.

It’s Not Just the Visuals — Shows Sound Different, Too

James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes in Dawson’s Creek. Photo Courtesy: Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you grew up watching a lot of TV, you can probably sing every word to a bunch of series’ theme songs. “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts, anyone?

When old-school shows move to streaming, they often encounter another challenge — prohibitively pricey music rights for their iconic theme songs and other key tunes. Many TV production companies of the 80s and 90s only ponied up for the initial broadcast rights for music, so the original contracts don’t cover streaming or DVD releases.

And when it comes time to get the music rights for streaming, some companies choose to simply replace the music with something cheaper. For example, Twentieth Century Fox balked at the cost of licensing Joe Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” for The Wonder Years. So when the series finally hit Netflix, it was missing this familiar cover.

Another example that caused a real stir: Dawson’s Creek appearing on Netflix without Paula Cole’s memorably angsty tune, “I Don’t Want to Wait.” When fans tuned in to revisit all their favorite melodramatic moments with Joey, Dawson and the whole gang, they were greeted by a very different intro: Jann Arden’s “Run Like Mad.” And many were not pleased with the change.

Can’t imagine enjoying your favorite shows without the iconic songs you remember? Consider making a stink about it. Just as Disney+ corrected The Simpsons aspect ratio after fans complained, Sony eventually caved to fan pressure and secured new streaming rights for the original Dawson’s Creek theme song. So if you want to see and hear older TV series exactly as the creators intended, remember that a loud enough fan outcry can sometimes get producers and platforms to change (or un-change) their ways.