Netflix is spinning off is DVD-by-mail business to focus on streaming. If there was ever an example of how postmodern business has become, this is it.
It is often said that in postmodernism, the curator was as important than the works he curated. That certainly seems to be the guiding principle behind this decision. Effectively, Netflix is throwing out the part of the company that is Netflix (DVD rental by mail) and turning into Qwikster to focus on the part of the company that was always the afterthought-streaming content. This is supposed to be a visionary move. The future of content is streaming, all content available on all devices, etc.
But invariably what you get from streaming is an adulterated experience. Sure streaming services from Netflix, iTunes, and elsewhere advertise “HD” content, but the adjective “HD” is to technology what “fresh” is to laundry detergent, meaningless, undefined, and inferred by the customer to mean something which is absolutely not true.
For example, while iTunes streams content in “HD” it is only 720, not 1080p, and the bitrate is horrendously low. This may be fine for watching Toy Story, but I’m not 7 years old. Watching 720p content isn’t what people buy 1080p TVs and monitors for. Furthermore Netflix and Vudu deliver 1080p content, sometimes, but at extremely high compression rates. The film The Dark Knight on Blu-ray disc has a bitrate of 24Mbps. Netflix cannot stream more than 5 Mbps, and Vudu not more than 20Mbps even under ideal conditions (and assuming you have an internet connection that can handle that speed). Even cable companies don’t deliver channels like HBO or even on-demand movies without significantly compressing the content.
Consider how the TV manufacturers and the streaming services are at odds. The former can’t tell you enough how its TVs display 1080p resolutions at rates upwards of 120 frames per second. The latter can’t disguise enough how they aren’t delivering you real high-definition content.
In fact, there is no streaming or download service (including the illegal ones) that delivers content in the same quality as it is found on a Blu-ray disc. The aforementioned Dark Knight is nearly 30GB on the disc. No one is going to deliver that to you online. The economics simply can’t justify it.
But why should you care about resolutions and bitrates? You shouldn’t, for most films. To appreciate The Hangover does not require stellar color reproduction and pixel-perfect high-quality encoding. But maybe 2001 does. Or maybe your favorite film does.
Some films require close watching, like some books require close reading. The word choice, the rhythm, the cadence of the sentences matters. They too convey the narrative. In some films, the set design, the sound design, and the art direction matter. A lot. Paying close attention to details, even the ones in the background, tells part of the story too. If you miss those, or you can’t see them, then you are missing part of the film, just as if you stepped away for 5 minutes and missed a crucial scene.
For example, in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the main character walks down a street passing by a number of shops whose names were specifically chosen and window displays specifically arranged by the director to convey additional meaning to the scene and to the film. At 720p or at a bitrate under 8Mbps, those details become indistinct and illegible. It becomes impossible to know that Kubrick was trying to tell you anything with those storefronts, let alone discern what he was trying to say. The same could be said of many films. When details matter, and those details are lost to excessive audio and video compression matter, you are not getting the complete picture. So sign me up for the regrettably named Qwikster, send me my Tree of Life 40Mbps Blu-ray, and cancel my subscription to streaming-only Netflix.
But more importantly, if streaming films is the future, that means that in the future, films will be shot with streaming on the small screen in mind. This is what happened in the 1980’s. Films that were shot in widescreen were nonetheless framed, blocked, and lit for broadcast on television or for rental on VHS.
It is perverse in a way, to take the largest artistic palette and the largest communications toolkit available and handicap it for the worst delivery media. It might make economic sense. It might be more convenient for most films. But as someone who loves closely watching films, I can’t say that it’s better.