After leaving its Hulu home of six years, Seinfeld has returned to streaming after a brief hiatus: The iconic ’90s sitcom now lives on Netflix. That is perfect for people like me, who take great comfort in knowing that the show’s neurotic foursome remain accessible whenever I need them.
But the show’s Netflix debut already has other Seinfeld-heads facepalming with frustration. The streaming service is not airing the show in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 4:3—a.k.a. fullscreen/square—but in 16:9, the standard widescreen/rectangular viewing format best-suited for HD televisions. This might not sound like a big deal to anyone who didn’t spend years watching Seinfeld on a tube TV or on cable, where it airs with two black bars on either side of the screen, preserving its original format. But for those in the know, taking a show that was meant to be seen one way and rejiggering it to be seen a whole different way can be quite jarring.
But how bad is this change for you, a Seinfeld stan (no, not that Stan) wanting to see the best possible version of the show? Let me explain what you’re missing, and why it sucks to watch Seinfeld this way … but why it could be much worse.
4:3, 16:9—what is this, math class? What the heck do all these numbers mean?!
Back in the day, TV screens were square. The reason for this? Because in the earliest days of the film camera, movies were square. The square, or fullscreen, aspect ratio is defined as 1.33:1, meaning the image was 1.33 times wider than it was tall; this number was also known as 4:3.
But—and this is super important!—with the advent of sound, 35mm film stock became a tiny bit bigger in order to accommodate the sound track. The aspect ratio went from being 4:3, a.k.a. 1.33:1, to being 1.37:1, or 1.37 times wider than it was tall. All sound films were then shown in this ratio, which was an almost negligible difference image-wise from 4:3. But still, it was a difference! And it became known as the Academy ratio, because of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a.k.a. the people who decide on the Oscars.
OK, so stuff used to be square, but then then it got stretched wider, yada, yada, yada. What does this have to do with me marathoning the season when Jerry and George are pitching a sitcom until Netflix asks me if I’m really still watching? (Which, I am, Netflix! Leave me alone!)
I’m getting there. 4:3 remained common enough that TV and, later, computer monitors, were made to match that allowance, so that the image would encompass the entire screen. But starting in the early ’50s, while TV screens remained the same size, movie screens (and movies) got wider and wider; this was partially done in a move to help differentiate film from television, as the latter increased in popularity. Thus widescreen, or the 16:9 aspect ratio, was born. (The 16:9 aspect ratio, for those who want to get technical, is also known as 1.78:1, or an image 1.78 times wider than it is tall.) Film’s adoption of a wider image is why movies shown on TV used to begin with a little disclaimer:
The image had to be altered in order to fit the space of the TV screen; this was usually done through selective cropping methods, which would often sacrifice a large portion of the original image. This objectively sucks if you’re a purist who wants to see a movie the way it was meant to be seen, which is why people hate when widescreen content is adjusted for fullscreen, uh, screens. But alas: Home video and cable movie marathons beckoned.
Meanwhile, things made for TV—shows, TV movies, live broadcasts—remained the same size. That includes, obviously, Seinfeld. But by 2010, technology allowed for our TVs to catch up with movie screens, size-wise. Widescreen TVs became more affordable and, eventually, the standard, so most shows adopted a more cinematic look and aspect ratio. No longer did things have to look so square, because they had way more screen real estate to play with.
So widescreen content made to be fullscreen is bad. Does that mean fullscreen content made into widescreen is … good?
Nah, it usually isn’t. While movies shown on TV were cropped to fit the smaller screen, TV shows filmed in 4:3 have to do the opposite: They are often stretched out to encompass a much wider canvas, which distorts the image. Other times, to make a fullscreen program look slightly less weird on a bigger screen (imagine Jerry and George looking super, inhumanly broad!), it’s zoomed in. What happens is we lose a lot of the image from all four sides in order to zero in on what’s happening in the middle of the frame.
The best way to watch something originally shown in 4:3 on a widescreen TV, or vice-versa, is to watch it letterboxed, which adds two black bars to either side of the image to fill in the space where there was never any image to show on a full- or widescreen TV. Most movies that you stream are shown that way, in fact, because they’re even bigger than 16:9 these days … but that’s for a whole different conversation.
Okay, back up. What do you mean by “losing” a lot of the image? What do we usually lose? Where does it go?
Well, take The Simpsons, for instance. It’s a comedy designed to utilize a very specific, square space. Many of the gags in the show are visual; if a funny image or on-screen text is included at the top of a fullscreen frame, you’ll see it in its 4:3 aspect ratio, as you’re meant to. But when it’s shown in widescreen and zoomed in—as it originally was when Disney Plus launched in November 2019—you lose the top of that frame in order to zero in on the meat of the image, which is usually in the center. That means you can the very good joke that the entire frame was designed around originally.
Here’s one infamous example from The Simpsons:
So Seinfeld has been converted to widescreen on Netflix—does that mean it’s going to be less funny? Am I losing all the jokes? Will we stop seeing Elaine’s little kicks when she’s doing her “Little Kicks” dance?!
Sometimes you do lose jokes, but in this case, no! Because unlike an animated show like The Simpsons, Seinfeld was shot on film. Remember how, when movies started shooting with sound, 35mm film became ever so slightly bigger? It means that Seinfeld’s original film prints were in that 1.37:1, Academy-approved aspect ratio. The show was very slightly cropped down to fit those 4:3 TV screens it was broadcast on, which meant a very, very small amount of the frame was lost. The cinematographers and directors accounted for this, however, building most of the show around the parts of the frame that they knew would actually be seen.
But that doesn’t mean those other parts didn’t exist. Which brings us to how Seinfeld was brought into widescreen: When Hulu acquired it for streaming in 2015, it made Seinfeld available only in 16:9, because that’s the size of the TV screen everyone has these days. Instead of zooming into the image like Disney did with The Simpsons, Hulu had access to those original, slightly wider film prints. It re-cropped the image so that we gained more of the image on the sides—but the trade-off is that it lost a decent amount of it on the bottom.
What we’re left with is a version of Seinfeld that looks a bit more cramped than it originally did, with almost none of the ground visible. This is honestly not a huge issue, unless you love seeing people’s shoes. (Considering how iconic Jerry’s sneakers were, however … that does kind of stink!) And there are occasional instances where characters are looking down or pointing at something on the ground that this re-cropped version of the show will not let you see anymore. Here’s an example:
“The Pothole” without the pothole? Why, I never! Still, it could absolutely be worse—the center of the image remains intact, even if it’s slightly off-center now, as there’s more image coming in from the sides. In a way, you get a little more Seinfeld … but also a little less.
You should watch this excellent video to see and learn more about what you could be missing out on while watching Seinfeld in widescreen to really make a decision for yourself on how bad this is:
Does Netflix have plans to restore Seinfeld to the original way it was meant to be seen?
Disney finally caved to fans’ cries to see old episodes of The Simpsons in 4:3 and letterboxed again after many months of forcing us to watch it in widescreen, making that original aspect ratio a viewing option. Netflix has not offered such an alternative yet, and Hulu didn’t back when it was streaming Seinfeld either.
All of this is to say that, if you were previously watching Seinfeld on Hulu, it’s very likely you already got used to this without even realizing it. But if it’s been a while, or you never bothered to watch until now, or you’re younger and just getting on the Seinfeld nostalgia train to seem all vintage or whatever, well: This is what you’re dealing with and why you’re dealing with it. It could absolutely be worse—but it could absolutely be better. This is on the same level of annoying as when Elaine can’t get Jerry’s new girlfriend to spare a square in “The Stall,” but not as infuriating as Jerry, Elaine, and George never getting seated for dinner in “The Chinese Restaurant.”
Who can I call to demand that this be fixed?
Try Art Vandelay.
Correction, Oct. 4, 2021: This piece has been updated to remove a quote to A24’s blog that incorrectly stated the 4:3 aspect ratio was four-by-three inches on 35mm film stock.