the future sound of television

Alex Epstein complains that TNT’s web viewing capabilities are frustrating, cumbersome, and really not worth the bother. This reminds me that I’ve been wanting to write about how I watch TV now — which is, entirely digitally — and examine the merits of the models available.

I haven’t owned a TV in about six years, not since I sold or gave away most of my furnishings on joining the Army. Back when I had one, it was an old 13-inch job that only got two channels reliably, so I watched mostly syndicated sitcoms — Friends, Seinfeld, Friends again (it played two or three times an evening in the Atlanta broadcast market), and Just Shoot Me.

My joining the Army and having, for the first time, some liquidity, coincided with a sudden explosion in releases of TV shows on DVD. The new life and profitability DVD sales gave to cult favorites like Family Guy and Firefly encouraged studios to release everything under the sun and to release products sooner and sooner after the original broadcast dates. Core fanbases could be induced to spend quite a lot on passionate loves like The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The West Wing. My sister mocked this trend, calling it “paying for re-runs,” but for me it made sense. I could watch the shows I wanted, when I wanted, a whole season at a time, and I wouldn’t waste time watching filler or channel-surfing.

Of course, I found myself watching things a season or more behind, and carefully skipping through the blogosphere in order to avoid discussion of current plot developments. (Sometimes I wished I hadn’t — Stringer Bell‘s death was pretty much a kick in the balls, and I might well have liked some warning.)

But technology was still moving forward. You may remember Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens’ famous comments about the dangers of tube-clogging on the internet; he was inspired in part by video-by-mail titan Netflix’s plan to distribute movies directly over the internet. Meanwhile Fox and NBC had decided to plunge into the digital revolution with both feet, creating their own site, the inimitable Hulu, to distribute their own television content.

On the surface, these two ventures seem very similar — after all, providing video over the internet is providing video over the internet, right? How hard can it be? I mean, sure, YouTube’s videos still look like dogmeat, but they’re giving it away. Surely if you’re making money from it, you’ve got a vested interest in making it look as good as possible. And from the customer’s point of view, surely if you’re paying a fee for something, it’s bound to be better than a free service. Right?

Let’s take Hulu, the success story, first. Hulu provides clean, fast video via Flash, and its selection of television shows is satisfyingly up-to-date. You can watch The Daily Show, Colbert, House, and Saturday Night Live the day after they air, and almost all shows within a week. Although most shows are intercut with ads in the standard broadcast act configuration — i.e., a cold open, two to six “acts,” and often a “tag” that runs in tandem with the credits — a few also allow the viewer to choose to watch a single, rather long commercial at the beginning instead. In all cases, the commercials are not fast-forwardable.

This is TV’s answer to TiVo. “Hey, man, you can watch high-quality shows without subscribing to cable — or even owning a television — but we really, really need you to watch the commercials, or nobody’s going to be watching much of anything anymore, okay? Chuck isn’t going to pay for itself, all right?” And I think most of us are glad to do it, especially since some of the commercials are really good, and when you’re on your laptop it’s always possible to pull up another window and check your email.

Another nice thing about Hulu is that it even includes links to shows it doesn’t actually carry. Like Pushing Daisies or How I Met Your Mother? Hulu doesn’t carry them, but it does carry up-to-date links to the ABC and CBS streaming sites. And by its very existence, Hulu has prompted those other networks to make their content available online. And not just new content, either — recognizing an insatiable hunger for content in the public, networks are wisely wringing new advertising dollars out of old standbys like The Twilight Zone and the original Battlestar Galactica.

Free, fast, powered by Flash and paid for by advertising, with a fine range of televison selections and an expanding collection of popular movies, Hulu is the best thing going in online video.

That’s not to say improvements couldn’t be made. The movie side is still fairly weak — it’s hit-or-miss whether you’ll find mainstream hits, indies are nonexistent, and the channel is often clogged with material nobody asked for, like The Nude Bomb. And Hulu doesn’t carry shows from the premium cable channels, let alone overseas networks, so you’re never going to be able to watch Weeds or Cracker. Also, television episodes don’t stay on the site forever — old eps are shuttled off to make room for new ones. What would be nice would be an actual video library, a digital storehouse of episodes and movies that you could watch whenever you wanted. Since it would presumably cost a good deal of money to keep those files available all the time, such a service might be subscription-based rather than ad-subsidized. But to make it useful and competitive with real TV and cable (not to mention illegal downloads), the subscription would probably be a flat fee rather than pay-per-view.

Enter Netflix.

Netflix has always been, frankly, a bit of a scam. You send them $18 a month, and they send you three movies at a time. But it’s not like having a limitless Blockbuster card — everything has to go through the mail, so there’s at least a two-day turnaround between movies, even if you live close to one of the main distribution centers. And obviously you want to watch and send back as many movies as possible to get the best value for your money. But Netflix, of course, profits less from your flat fee as they process more and more movies per month. Not surprisingly, they often drag their feet, creating subtle delays for customers who are particularly timely about returning discs. Maybe only a day here and there, but the practice adds up to huge savings for the company.

So Netflix isn’t really much better than a normal video store, and in terms of selection it isn’t even as good as the really great independently owned stores like Emerald City Video in Syracuse or Facets in Chicago. And like the brick-and-mortar stores, it profits not so much from video rentals as from its customers’ laziness and the low priority most of us place on getting videos back promptly.

But when Netflix added the “Watch Instantly” feature, it added enormously to the potential value it could provide its customers. Sure, mailing DVDs back and forth is a sucker’s game; but a flat-fee subscription to a library of movies and TV shows is very appealing. (Netflix stumbled a bit when it first launched “Watch Instantly” by restricting use to a few hours a month but now either marketing sense or the consistently falling price of streaming video has convinced them to make the service unlimited for all subscribers except those in the very lowest fee bracket.)

So let’s just stipulate that Netflix subscribers are undoubtedly now getting more value for the same price. But if we treat “Watch Instantly” as a real pay service rather than just an add-on to a rental service — and there’s no reason to think that the online delivery vehicle won’t eventually make the by-mail portion obsolete — what are we getting for our money?

The available selection of titles is haphazard to the point of being comical — recent arthouse hits like Pan’s Labyrinth and slightly older fare like Velvet Goldmine and The Hudsucker Proxy are delightful, but other works by the same artists are nowhere to be found, and much of what is available is pure dreck: Poison Ivy 3 and the Toby Keith/Ted Nugent vehicle Beer For My Horses (Tom Skerritt, have you no shame?). Still, it’s a better movie library than Hulu’s and I imagine in the next year to 18 months it’ll develop into something really satisfying and impressive.

And what about TV? Well, here the selection is even more random. Some really choice stuff shows up — I watched the first two seasons of Weeds and got interested enough to order the DVDs of season 3, which hints at a smart business model for Netflix. But they’ve got a long way to go — most of what’s available is dreck, and what’s not dreck isn’t exactly high-profile. A lot of BBC shows are available, including new favorites like Hotel Babylon, Jekyll, and Manchild — not to mention classic episodes of Doctor Who. And while that pleases me to no end, I’d also like to be able to see some of the great recent American TV shows. Why can’t I watch older seasons of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, or at least stuff that’s long since off the air, like The Sopranos or The West Wing?

Again, I’m sure selection will get better as costs drop. The really issue is something subtler.

For a while, “Watch Instantly” wasn’t available to Mac Users. Netflix posted a polite notice on the website explaining that they were in negotiations with the content owners (i.e., the studios) about what streaming software to use to preserve digital rights. Eventually, they settled on Microsoft Silverlight — which is awful. Unlike Hulu’s smoothly, low-impact video delivery, Silverlight causes everything else to slow to a crawl. And not just downloads — I mean the whole Mac OS slows down. Just switching from application to application causes the spinny disc of terror, and closing the window where Silverlight is operating can sometimes cause Safari to hang altogether.

Some developers claim that Silverlight is the wave of the future because it uses more readily available codecs and because Microsoft has done a good job providing development tools to go with it. But from the end user’s perspective, it’s awful. Not only does it eat system resources in an unacceptable way, but the video quality is decidedly mediocre. Frequently it’s just this side of YouTube — blocky, blurry, and choppy — but without that site’s bedrock stability. Moreover, sudden drops in connection speeds cause Silverlight to “adjust your video quality,” which translates into time spent not watching your movie and crappier video. Hulu’s solution to the same problem also involves interrupting the show (if the video starts to get jumpy, you press pause, and the video window displays a buffer meter, so you can see when things are back up to speed), but there’s never a visible drop in quality. And here’s something they don’t make clear when you enable Silverlight on your Mac: it may disable some other devices you were previously using to stream from Netflix. XBox users beware.

I don’t know the story behind how the studios and Netflix settled on Silverlight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a lot to do with digital rights management. This article makes clear that Microsoft is trying hard to sell Silverlight’s superior DRM capabilities to content providers. But DRM is more of a concern if you’re using the pay model (a la Netflix) rather than the free-with-ads model of traditional TV and now Hulu. One real strength of Hulu’s model is that by making things available for free, it competes effectively with piracy. As long as you have to pay for downloadable video (whether per item, as in iTunes, or for a flat fee), you have some incentive to steal. But most of us are far too lazy to try to work around the un-fast-forwardable ads on Hulu, especially since, like commercials on real TV, they give us the opportunity to pee or go make a sandwich. And Hulu’s movies are eminently portable — you don’t have to download a movie and put it on a thumbdrive for your friend; just send him the link! Or embed it in your blog!

So far, I’m using both services in about equal measure. But I can already see myself bumping up against the limits of Netflix’s library of interest, especially when it comes to TV shows, and I’ve only been using it so much lately because no new shows are being broadcast during the holidays. But the better Hulu gets, the less I want to pay for a clunky, inferior service.

The ideal combination, of course, would be something approximating the non-online model: Hulu would take the role of broadcast TV, playing new content paid for with ads, while Netflix or something similar could play the part of the video stores and cable, keeping the vast storehouse of older material available for a small fee. But unfortunately right now only half of this arrangement is working the way it should. And if Hulu is able to make money playing old movies with ads, the other half may find itself purely unnecessary.

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