Netflix becomes Postmodern, splits into two, and races for the bottom

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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.

Related posts:

  1. Walt Disney CTO: Movies are about “visual spectacle,” not story
  2. Predictive Review For A Film I Will Never Watch
  3. Blind – a cautionary tale
  4. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is one of the greatest films ever made.
  5. Blinky Will Make Your Family Happy

12 Responses to Netflix becomes Postmodern, splits into two, and races for the bottom

  1. max says:

    There are a ton of reasons to focus on “digital delivery” for media, which is why Amazon and Netflix (and Gamestop and Microsoft and Apple and everybody) are moving this way:

    – The economics of the USPS are going to change radically
    – Sales tax changes are making downloads favorable
    – DRM means less piracy
    – Downloads plus dedicated devices (iPad, Kindle, Xbox) equals excellent viewership data

    Netflix was never designed for the aficionado anyway, since you guys tend to buy your films. For the “watch once and forget” crowd, the lack of streaming quality is more than made up for by the convenience and lower cost. The game is purely economic. Pomo need not apply.

  2. shuckthatjive says:

    Don’t forget the tablets and even phones that are now advertised as having “HD” displays and even “surround sound.” I was shocked to see phones being sold preloaded with Avatar – surely watching something as visually striking as Avatar on the small screen with tinny sound would only make those shortcomings more obvious?

    Relevant: David Lynch on phone-quality movies.

    To nitpick, there are online piracy communities – at least, I hear there are, ahem – where you can get films at or near Blu-ray quality; to use your example, the Dark Knight download weighs in at 27 GB. But I see this as the exception that proves your argument: this kind of piracy thrives not so much on being cheaper than the legitimate sources, but by being better.

  3. sdenheyer says:

    Some matters of fact:

    -it’s easily verified that the most popular “less then legal” websites carry full-bitrate versions of most popular films
    -the necessity of 1080P is highly subjective: (TLDR: whether the difference is noticeable is a function of resolution and viewing distance)
    -5 years ago, the economics of putting films online at all weren’t justifiable

    Some opinions:

    -I don’t care if you’re Kubrick, if you’re putting things in your film that folks miss @720p/whatever Mbps, it also means they’re missing it if they happen to be sitting in the wrong part of the theatre – you deserve to have your message unappreciated
    -I have 2001 on Bluray, and it’s awesome, but I suspect that 1080P (possibly 720) is way, way above the noise floor of the film grain. Your medium is capturing way more information then what’s actually on the celluloid. (And there’s the whole other purist argument around “correcting” film grain).
    -I’m from audioland, and we’ve already been down this particular rabbit hole with vinyl vs. CDs, lossy compression, etc. etc. Here’s where it ended up: lossy compression is awesome, you can’t ABX (ie. doubl-blind) the difference, and it saves tons of bandwidth. I expect film will end up in the same place, given time.

    • DataShade says:

      -I don’t care if you’re Kubrick, if you’re putting things in your film that folks miss @720p/whatever Mbps, it also means they’re missing it if they happen to be sitting in the wrong part of the theatre – you deserve to have your message unappreciated

      Came here to sort of say this, with the caveat: the way the MPAA and RIAA are going, big $100M+ arthouse and blockbuster movies might be gone in 10 years anyways, for any of a dozen different reasons. You might want to get used to low-bandwidth 480/720 “HalfD” movies, ’cause there’s a decent chance that’ll be 90% of the field whether Netflix lives or dies.

  4. stucky says:

    Cue the inevitable discussion/argument on codecs and the superiority of h.264 over mpeg2. In case you missed it, there was an enormous war between two factions when it came to high def. HD-DVD used advanced compression techniques to achieve the same visual quality as Blu-ray, who stuck with the decades old formula, mpeg2. HD-DVD had a limit of 15 gigs per disk, and using h.264, didn’t need much more than a fraction of that to surpass mpeg2 quality, no matter the size.

    So your 30gb Dark Knight is only better than the pirate bay’s 10gb Dark Knight because the source for tpb’s material was your 30gb Bluray. If they’d both been sourced from the same material, your copy would be inferior.

    As an aside, this war has played out already and guess what? Quality loses to mobility and convenience every time. LP->cassette, CD->mp3. Do you honestly expect to see audio sampled at 96hkz or delivered with a full bitstream ever again?

  5. TheDevastator says:

    It’s interesting that you compare VHS in the ’80’s to streaming today. But VHS has been replaced… by BluRay. Similarly, maybe Netflix is anticipating radically better streaming in five years or a decade, and has decided to position themselves now to take advantage of that.

    Why be so forward-thinking? If I was in charge of Netflix, my biggest fear would be turning into Blockbuster, so I would prefer to embrace new technology before it’s ready, over staying with the old technology for too long.

  6. Guy Fox says:

    Never having had access to Netflix, it’s hard to empathize. One thing we can be absolutely sure about, though, is that Netflix’s business isn’t providing quality content, the best viewing experience in the biz, or doing justice to the filmmaker’s craft. The business of Netflix is business. Those making the decisions are betting that this will provide a better return than the alternative, so if anything, this is a very post-modern decision.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      The business of business is finding a product or service you can provide at lower cost than what customers are willing to pay them for it. In other words, you have to create more “value” than you consume, where the “value” of a thing is not-altogether-arbitrarily defined in terms of what people are willing to trade for it.

      I agree it’s often frustrating that everybody with a dollar gets a vote, and so many dollars are in the hands of people with execrable taste. But they don’t like your taste either, y’know. Nor even my taste, the swine!

    • sunshinefiasco says:

      See, I had Netflix before I moved outside of its streaming/mailing area, and it’s awesome– at first. Most people that I know typically tired of it within 6mos, but still paid for it because why not. This price increase just pushes more of them into torrents, and the ones that already use torrents further into learning more about how they work.

  7. wishswudhavwings says:

    I would think perhaps this post said more about you than you’re saying about Netflix with your choice of The Dark Knight and 2001 as examples of Blu-Ray movies. More importantly, streaming was never never never an afterthought for Netflix. It is why they are called NETflix and not Discflix or DVDflix. They have always been looking forward to the day when streaming was all anyone did and DVDs were obsolete. If you ask me it looks like they decided to blow on ahead with or without their customers. You make an interesting point about the quality of movies and the kinds of watching that will happen afterwards, but perhaps this is exactly what Netflix is aiming to rectify with this split?

  8. Torgest says:

    Bit of a stretch, tying a corporate split to postmodermism, isn’t it? By the same logic, merging two business units would be modernism. Or, whatever the opposite of postmodernism is.

    I’d say it’s an example of failures of perspective, if anything. The spiel I received in my Gmail inbox the other day was all about what was right for Netflix, the company, and nothing at all do with what I, a customer, want my experience to be as a paying customer. In other words, all I see is a decision based on looking inward at the corporate self as opposed to looking outwards at others. Narcissism, anyone?

    Let me explain what I mean by the customer experience and why I’m pissed — pissed enough that I would leave Netflix right now if there were an alternative. Start with an example: My girls got into Japanese animation with Ponyo, which is available to stream. I wanted them to see My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, too. Neither is available to stream, both are exquisite movies, so I popped them in my queue and had them show up two days later. (Incidentally, they loved those movies.)

    I’ve had the same experience with the Pusher trilogy and Mongol, just to mention a few. Not mainstream movies. So, if I venture off into art-house territory or foreign movies, I expect having to get it on DVD. It’s plan B, the workaround. Fine; until now, Netflix has made it easy, because I manage both queues in the same place. From my perspectives, they’re just two delivery mechanisms. No, not from Netflix’s, but from mine. Mine counts because I, as a customer, pay their bills.

    Starting soon, I’m all of a sudden, and for reasons that benefit Netflix, not me, I’ll have to maintain my DVD queues separately. I’m looking for a movie using the on-screen interface. It’s not available. Now I have to crank up the laptop, go Kwik-e-Mart kviqster quicster squidkwer sqwiky qwikster, log in, and add it to queue. That is like taking your supermarket and splitting it in two completely separate stores across the parking lot from each other, one with most of the stuff that most people use most of the time and the other with the rest of the stuff. WTF?

    What the move does is discourage me from keeping the option that gives me access to the offbeat and unusual. Many movies and shows that are art-house/foreign/artistic/weird are available to stream, sure, but not all If I discontinue DVDs, which is what Netflix is apparently daring me to do, will limit my choices. If we all did it, it would be a flattening of tastes and selection. That’s the opposite of postmodernism, if you ask me.

  9. Kal says:

    Netflix’s streaming selection is awful. No new movies, lacking many popular older movies and generally full of awful b movies. The selection of TV series is somewhat better but doesn’t justify subscribing to streaming only.

    I don’t know if its postmodernism or not but I just might start torrenting my movies.