This is one of those blog posts which is mostly for my own interest.
We’re up to the start of season 2 in our West Wing DVD (re)watching. That season 1 cliffhanger is brilliant… only spoilt by the excessively perky end theme music (I love the opening title music, but I’ve never liked the ending piece, to be honest).
The West Wing is one of those shows that lasted across the transition from traditional 4:3 television to widescreen 16:9, and the DVDs reflect this.
Season 1 and 2 — the episodes are in 4:3, but oddly the menus are in 16:9. Interestingly, the opening theme changes from the first few episodes — it gets a lot more pomp and circumstance at about episode 5. In this Q+A with composer W.G. ‘Snuffy’ Walden, he says: As a matter of fact, the first couple of episodes don’t have the orchestra version, they have a synth version as we had to get on the air and couldn’t get the main title done in time.
It was from Season 3 that they started making the show in widescreen. I found this media announcement from 2001:
BURBANK – July 19, 2001 — NBC next season will broadcast its popular, critically acclaimed and Emmy Award-winning “The West Wing” (Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m. ET) in a special format – “Presented in Wide Screen” – just as the network has done with television’s top-rated drama, “ER” last season.
The audience-friendly process will feature a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (or more commonly known as “16×9”) as opposed to the basic 1.33:1 (or “4×3”) ratio that is standard on almost all television programs. Because the more rectangular picture encompasses a wider swath of action, a narrow black strip will appear at the top and bottom of the screen that is a form of the letterbox format often used to present feature films on television.
So on the Season 3 DVD — the episodes are in widescreen, but letterboxed (“non-enhanced”), which means they need to be zoomed to fill the display on modern widescreen TVs, and consequently you lose some resolution. Presumably they’d fix this the next time this season is remastered.
Seasons 4 to 7 — full widescreen.
Interestingly, the series was made on film, and in 2010 the entire series was re-released in high-definition… but not on Blu-ray, only on iTunes, for $24.99/season, or $3.49/episode.
It’s not actually the first time it’s been around in high definition. I seem to recall the later seasons aired on ABC1 digital when there was an ABC1 HD channel (before ABC News 24 launched), and though I didn’t have a digital TV at the time, I did sneak a look on the computer with an HD tuner card. It looked gorgeous.
But rather than buy on iTunes what I already have, I think, for now, we’ll stick to the DVDs.
Related: the conversion of old shows to widescreen can be controversial. This fascinating blog post about The Wire reveals that the whole style of the show was based around 4:3 images, and they stuck with it through the series run — but now the push is on to remaster it into widescreen high definition, which in some cases works well, and in others changes the feel of some scenes.