As the longest-running sitcom on TV, The Simpsons has accumulated a trove of digital content that's record-setting in almost every way: a staggering 552 episodes from 25 seasons. This October, FXX will launch an app that lets fans (with a cable package) stream every episode, on any device—plus give them unprecedented power to browse shows, search for quotes, share clips, and curate playlists.
The Simpsons is a unique series. Thanks to the non-sequential nature of the shows and the fact that none of the characters age (or die, mostly), there's no real need to watch episodes linearly, unlike most long-running programs. This presented an interesting challenge when transferring the show online for streaming. Normally when a show is acquired by a cable network, the deal is that the network will air all the episodes and broadcasts in order. The Simpsons World super-app bucks the norm.
"What was really revolutionary was the way that we were able to acquire the non-linear rights for the show," said John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions. Meaning the network was allowed to broadcast them out of order on their new FXX network, and also stream them in snippets online.
The front page of the Simpsons World experience, with a streaming episode, list of every episode, and original content and playlists
This flexibility reflects the direction today's viewing habits are going in, as people migrate to content on-demand, Landgraf said. "We're really moving into a non-linear world," he said. Simpsons World, an immersive online portal and cross-platform streaming experience, provides a place to watch every Simpsons ever, across devices ranging from a Samsung Galaxy to an iPad to Xbox One. But it's also putting an emphasis on curation and discovery.
In addition to the 552 episodes, Simpsons World will serve up memorable clips for sharing and embedding, and provide original content like behind-the-scenes details and fun facts. "We'll make it easy for you. We'll curate for you, you can curate for us. It can be leaned forward, it can be leaned back," said FX Networks COO Chuck Saftler at a preview at FOX studios in Los Angeles Friday.
Interestingly, the format for the app was actually inspired by a book: Simpsons World, a wildly popular 2010 publication by Matt Groening that acts as a kind of encyclopedia for the show up through season 20. Like a book, it allows fans to "flip" to the part that's relevant to them at that moment.
When you launch the app, which is designed by Huge, an episode chosen at random immediately starts playing, which execs think mimics the kind of serendipitous way one might stumble upon any Simpsons episode in syndication on any given night on television. Directly below that is a timeline of every episode, along with stats showing which ones are currently the most popular with the streaming audience.
Screenshots from the iPad interface
Of course, you still have to be a cable subscriber to access all the features—after all, The Simpsons is still on the air, and this app is still a marketing campaign to get fans to tune in. If you're not an FXX subscriber you'll be served up an endless montage of clips instead of full episodes, and will be able to browse episodes but not watch them.
The app will also feature themed "playlists"—curated collections of clips. During the demonstration I got to watch the 10 best Ralph quotes and see a timely tailgating-season collection of Homer's snacks. Playlists are created to celebrate classic characters or promote upcoming programming on FXX—like in a few weeks when they'll play all the "Treehouse of Horrors" episodes for Halloween.
In the next iteration of the app, expected in January 2015, users will be able to gather clips and put them into their own playlists, which can be shared on social media or embedded on external websites. So I might build my own personalized Sideshow Bob episode list, or make a montage of my favorite Phil Hartman characters. Or every Valentine's Day, instead of hunting online for the perfect "I Choo-Choo-Choose you" clip, I could tweet it directly from the Simpsons World site. (One request to the creators: Add a GIF maker.)
Screenshots from the iPhone app
To build a comprehensive search feature to comb through this trove of comedy, the FX dev team collected text from closed captioning, imported episode scripts, and mined Wikipedia entries and lists of popular quotes—any relevant third party sources. The scripts are particularly useful, because even if the characters never say where they are, each scene is essentially "geotagged" with a location.
It means you could feasibly search for every bit of footage that takes place in Moe's Tavern. Ostensibly, you could place all the episode scenes on a map, creating an actual Simpsons World. This could lead to some awesome future applications, agreed Daryl Bowden, FX's tech director. "Basically the plan was to get all the information we could possibly get, because sometime we're gonna need it."
AppleTV and Xbox One navigation, which will easily let you browse season to season
Simpsons World is pioneering a whole new paradigm for how a television show can live online. It hands over the content to the audience directly, giving fans the ultimate access to slice-and-dice the content for our own purposes. Not every series could do this—I tried to think of some other "worlds" I'd want to see and didn't get much further than Seinfeld. But this approach could really work as a way to bring fans—and Simpsons fans are zealous if nothing else—more deeply into the orbit of a beloved show. I'll have a full review the moment it drops, which will be sometime in mid-October.