Ralph Wiggum and Reverend Lovejoy finally have an app of their own. The new Simpsons World app and portal, which launches today, is a Simpsons fan’s ultimate dream: Every episode of the long-running television cartoon available on a streaming player, with every in-joke and uncredited guest star (Michael Jackson! Dustin Hoffman!) lovingly encoded into metadata.
Fox’s FX Networks are making Simpsons World a centerpiece of the Simpsons new (as of 2014) and lucrative life on cable television. The intuitive website and app is a masterwork of streaming television, with every episode of the iconic show combined with loving curation of the contents. But it’s more than just a very well-crafted time waster; it’s one of the television industry’s best attempts yet to adapt to the strange new world of streaming video.
Thanks to the Simpsons’ dense mythology, plotting, and copious pop culture references, the show makes an unusually good candidate for a streaming television archive. Site designers used Matt Groening’s Simpsons World book as a starting point, and a team of content strategists then pored through individual episodes to collect and catalog information about the show. At a press event in Los Angeles, FX’s Chuck Saftler explains that the network sees a “Simpsons universe” of characters and storylines that can be branded and curated. Along with whole episodes, the portal has an extensive library of clips that can be remixed and randomized in different assortments, along with a Heartbeat-like feature showing the popularity of each episode.
“We have access to every season and episode from the homepage,” Saftler added, and content can be viewed through their main website or through separate iOS and Android apps. Owing to the legal vagaries of the television industry and the fact that Simpsons access is being made available via FX Networks, full episodes can only be viewed by FX Networks subscribers. An additional legal hiccup means that access to Simpsons World is not yet available to DirectTV and Dish subsccribers; FX hopes to have access for them available within the year.
Simpsons World was designed for Fox by New York-based digital agency Huge, which is best known for developing the wildly popular HBO Go streaming player. HBO Go was designed for the same objective Simpsons World was: Delivering a large library of proprietary streaming content to a tech-savvy userbase who, regardless of whether they would admit it or not, would pirate the material if it were not available online legally at an affordable price. Because digital streaming of television shows is subject to a morass of legal regulations and red tape, networks like HBO and FX have to tread a fine line between keeping their fans happy, maximizing revenue, and avoiding legal trouble with the cable and satellite companies they depend on for carriage.
But while HBO Go highlights content from an entire network, Simpsons World is dedicated to just one show. FX faced a particular challenge: Building a video-on-demand portal for a cult television program, rather than for an entire network. With 26 seasons of content, The Simpsons was one of the only television shows FX and Huge could build a single-program portal around. South Park, the closest competitor, put all their seasons on the air in 2008 at SouthParkStudios.com, but discontinued that project when they inked an exclusive deal with Hulu.
Allen Orr, a creative director at Huge, told Fast Company that “because The Simpsons doesn’t have to be watched in order, this allowed us the flexibility to create an experience that can be viewed in multiple ways, not just linearly.” He added that rather than being a challenge for the agency, creating a video-on-demand portal for one show in particular was in some ways easier.
Although Simpsons World is available now–and anyone, regardless of cable subscription, can watch clips–even more is coming soon. Saftler and FX are adding more features to the portal over the next year, including detailed show indexes and a gamification program where viewers win “donuts” for exploring different portions of the site that can be used to view hidden content.