Intermittent Issues: I, For One, Welcome Our New Binary Overlords
By Ben Gruchow
November 10, 2016

Submit to your rulers.

Like most advancements in the technological world, we can attribute the ascension of streaming media in the home to sex appeal. In 1999, Victoria’s Secret webcasted their annual fashion show live for the first time. If you’ve read the previous column in this series, about codecs and generations of streaming media, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a live webcast in the late 1990s qualitatively; it was godawful. Still, with an estimated 2 million viewers, it was a massive hit for the time.

This is meant to give us a quick look at where streaming, in effect, started. The technology did not follow a linear path to the minefield of streaming apps we have access to; the streaming-media industry fell victim to the same bubble and crash that impacted the dot-com industry in 2000, and years would pass before revitalization. Our current incarnation of this technology owes its existence to some of the behind-the-scenes machinations during this period of dormancy, and to the development of adaptive HTTP-based streaming in particular.

This adaptive streaming method - using the existing HTTP protocol to deliver content in small chunks based on the bandwidth availability at any given moment; we can look at the previous column’s illustration of video data layering to get a good impression of how this works with high-quality content - was transformative. Gone was the impedance of buffering, which is a process that halts video playback while a certain volume of content is temporarily cached and readied locally for playback, and the foregone conclusion that a region without competitive broadband speeds would be effectively locked out of high-quality streaming video.

If you were to utter the phrase “Lazy Sunday” to someone today, in 2016 - at least, someone who doesn’t make entertainment intake and analysis part of their daily routine - what you’d likely get for a response would be hazy recollection. “Lazy Sunday” is, of course, one of the first of the Saturday Night Live’s Digital Shorts, three- to four-minute satirical riffs on various pop culture targets that were frequently the most tonally on-point and almost certainly the best-produced material of any episode in which they aired. This first one was especially notable in what it did for the visibility of a video streaming website that had seen its first millionth view only three months prior. YouTube was gaining in popularity on its own, but the appearance of the “Lazy Sunday” sketch on the site provided a major milestone in being the first time that broadcast content was available on demand, for free, from such a wide platform. It was also an unofficial milestone; the video was not sanctioned by NBC, and its subsequent removal led to the creation of YouTube’s Content Verification Program.

At this point, a user who uploaded copyrighted material to the site stood a pretty good chance of having that material removed by YouTube, ostensibly at the request of the studios (the tool was created specifically to allow for multiple requests for removal at once). This development got a negative reception from the YouTube community, but it had a clear argumentative precedent (if the early days of VHS and DVD were beset by ringing concerns of how piracy would compromise revenue from the market ultimately proved groundless, that doesn’t change the fact that they were made).

Far more intriguing was the ascent and [re]establishment of Hulu, which is pretty much Ground Zero for streaming current seasons of TV shows. Hulu started life as a personal blog in the late 1990s, stylized as HuLu and operated by a private citizen as her personal photo-sharing website. Looking at HuLu as it existed in this context is like jumping in a time machine and going back to 1998 and the days of Geocities and Yahoo! web pages: a text-based list of links to various photo galleries, in Times New Roman font with no real graphical elements. HuLu operated in this regard from 1999 until summer of 2007; at this point, the site went “dark” without any explanation.

The development was the final move in a series of negotiations between six industry executives that had begun in spring of 2006, not long after “Lazy Sunday” had made the rounds on YouTube and established the Content Guidelines; the venture was a video streaming service, this one sanctioned by production companies. The re-branded Hulu launched in August of 2007, consisting of nothing more than an invite to sign up by e-mail for the beta, promised in October. When that day arrived, the initial offerings involved premiere episodes from initial partners NBC and Fox.

Hulu was something of a game changer even in this early form: the quality was significantly improved over YouTube, and available in widescreen HD. The presence of extremely short commercial breaks - no more than 30 seconds to begin with, and often limited to a single 15-second advertisement - gave the enterprise the distinct feeling of a giveaway. The fact that this launch took place against a looming writer’s strike, predicated on the challenge of adequately compensating creators for their content against the rise of “new media” (i.e. digitally-delivered content) provided some grim irony, but only for those really looking for it in the first place.

It did not take long at all for Hulu to begin expanding both its content and its barrier to entry; TV shows from ABC and certain cable networks began to find their way online. The CW and Comedy Central also came onboard, albeit by way of portals to the network’s own sites. The tradeoff was that the commercial count and duration expanded, from 30 seconds to 60, then to 90. Hulu Plus also became an offering, exchanging a flat monthly fee for expanded episode access (the free-access version of the site had its current episode roster quickly capped at the previous five episodes in the relevant season) and no commercials. If this and the four other content providers we’ll cover for the remainder of this column fall into a certain niche, Hulu’s is that of the individual who consumes TV shows by volume, on a daily basis.

Video and audio quality rank somewhere near the bottom of the pack; although Hulu offers content in HD with H.264, it maxes out at 720p, and it uses Flash instead of HTML5 for its delivery. Hulu cited DRM and compatibility with iOS devices for this decision; this is something that is more applicable in 2010 than 2016. Audio is spottier; by taking a peek at the Hulu Advertising guidelines, audio can only be submitted in 2-channel stereo, at 192 kbps. This works well enough for TV shows, but underwhelmingly so for feature films. And the audio on Hulu’s trailer and promotional materials is disastrous; the source file contains clear instances of EQ being applied to all of the original surround channels, including low-frequency effects. The result is a muddy sound that leads one to believe that they’ve blown out their subwoofer or speakers even at moderate volume levels. This is ancillary, though; the viewer who uses Hulu for all of their streaming-media needs is unlikely to notice much of that compromise.

Netflix had an altogether bumpier start to its streaming protocol, ironically owing to the fact that it technically got the jump on Hulu. Netflix Streaming initiated in January 2007, but the avenues for consumers to take advantage of it were tentative and not particularly streamlined: users could opt for streaming technology instead of having discs mailed, but the model charged per minute of watching - essentially mandating that users deliberate over what to watch before actually choosing to watch it. The service also initially utilized Microsoft’s Silverlight DRM plugin for its streaming video, which created issues with viewing on certain browsers (it did not work with Google Chrome, for example). This was also the pre-app era: in order to work anywhere but on a computer, a user would need to own a dedicated piece of hardware. Netflix actually invested in this type of hardware before pulling the plug quietly on the unreleased “Netflix Box” in mid-2007, switching tracks to an initiative that had much more to do with getting the Netflix service supported by existing hardware - principally DVD and Blu-ray players (and given that it was 2007-08, HD-DVD players were occasional beneficiaries, too; no, I will not let it go).

The pivotal event in sustaining Netflix’s early exposure to streaming was arguably its 2008 deal with Starz to stream the channel’s movies over the service; this was a way to sidestep the problem of exclusivity deals that studios had signed with premium cable channels like Starz and HBO, and - via the streaming of Starz TV shows - also provided some early exposure to how serialized programming on a streaming platform might work. Starz saw a benefit by way of Netflix users becoming familiar with their existing TV properties in advance of the current season; Netflix saw the signs of an appetite for what would become known as binge-watching. It’s worth mentioning that, up to this point, binge-watching all of a TV show generally meant dropping between 20 and 50 dollars for each season on DVD or Blu-ray.

It took a couple of years, but in 2011 Netflix announced its intention to pursue original programming, at a price point much more palatable than cable for users and in a format almost unprecedented for the industry: each 13-episode season of an original program would be released all at once, not only allowing binge-watching but encouraging it. If there was a single factor that pushed streaming content into the mainstream while cementing Netflix’s place in it, original programming - beginning with Season 1 of House of Cards - was that factor.

Netflix is similar to Hulu in that it lacks a single set of standards with which to transmit A/V material; unlike Hulu, it fully embraces the upper limits of the H.26x standard. Rather than going between one SD and one HD resolution, and risking buffering of its most popular content, Netflix’s material runs a gamut from 320x240 right up to 1920x1080, via layering. Bitrate is selected through a truly clever algorithm that basically runs dozens of transcoding efforts on each title in their library, adjusting compression levels in minute increments until it arrives at the best tradeoff between quality and bitrate. Netflix also embraced HEVC once it was feasible to do so, which - as we well know by now - makes it possible to roughly halve the bitrate of a 1080p image without a perceptible loss in quality. The end result of this is an audiovisual experience that’s still dependent on bandwidth and thus not entirely consistent; it is not unusual for content on Netflix to occasionally fluctuate between high and low levels of quality and resolution in mid-watch. When the bandwidth is there and the coding algorithm is able to stretch its legs, though, it’s impressive.

Audio is considerably patchier; although Netflix offers 5.1 surround on most of its titles, it’s generally working with a bitrate constrained from the original source material. If you remember your basic home-theater audio specs, a Dolby Digital Plus audio track runs at 768 kbps or higher on a Blu-ray disc. Dolby Digital Plus (or DD+) audio on Netflix runs at 192 kbps, justified partly by bandwidth needs and partly by Dolby’s own endorsement of their encoding technology. This results in an effect common to a constricted audio bitrate: dynamic range is suppressed, with the quieter and louder moments situated closer together on the spectrum, and the entire mix tending toward the quieter end, with a noticeably flatter effect in the listening experience.

Amazon chose a different tactic for the launch of its Amazon Instant Video service, launching it in 2011 as an added benefit to its yearly Amazon Prime membership instead of requiring a dedicated monthly membership up front. Other than that, the overlap between Amazon and Netflix as streaming-content providers is striking on the surface - the two got their start at roughly the same time, each of them gained significant additional exposure by partnering with a premium-cable provider, and much of the licensed content is the same across both platforms. Generally, if a movie or TV show is premiering on Netflix in a certain month, it’s also premiering on Amazon. Both providers offer 4K content albeit at different service tiers, and the delivery method is pretty much an apples-to-apples comparison now, too; Amazon offers its streaming content as a standalone service.

The main differences between the two come down to deployment and original content. Amazon offers offline storage; Netflix more or less has a monopoly on the latter. Which one is more valuable ultimately depends on utility; offline storage of movies and TV shows is admittedly useful if you’re going to be spending a lot of time out of normal Wi-Fi or data range, but this is an increasingly rare occurrence, and Amazon is not the only provider to offer this as a function. Netflix’s extensive catalog of original content is more of an asset. Amazon also still lacks iOS or Chromecast functionality, which is so unusual at this stage of the game that it could almost count as a feature. Its interface is generally outdated and unintuitive, and despite offering similar content as Netflix at similar resolutions, actual quality depends more on the device than Netflix does, and the competition has the edge on compatible devices, too.

The final two exhibits in our analysis here depart from the subscription-based model of Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video. iTunes and Vudu are both online digital-locker services: it costs nothing to become a nominal member of either of these services, and all of the investment comes in rental or purchase of digital versions of films one at a time. When a user wants to add a film to their online library, they select the relevant option, and their stored payment card is charged; their library is then provided with a key code that acts to “unlock” the product on the provider’s own servers. The key code is either set to expire at the conclusion of the rental period (generally 24 to 72 hours) or set to never expire.

iTunes was the first on the block with this, launching in 2006 as part of the iTunes 7 software update. The initial offering consisted of 75 movies by Disney and its subsidiaries Pixar, Touchstone, and Miramax. That number is now 75,000, making this provider by a considerable margin the most generous out of any provider listed here. However, this also gives us a case study in the reality that numbers aren’t the whole story. iTunes being what it is, the opportunities for deployment are also the most restrictive out of the providers here - to the extent that unless you own a hardware component of the Apple ecosystem, you’re more or less relegated to viewing content in a Web browser. There’s no native Android app or support for Chromecast. Video quality for an iTunes-purchased film is above-average, although my lack of an Apple TV prevents me from really assessing it in a proper home-theater environment. Bearing this in mind, iTunes appears to be the solution for the individual who values a fluid but closed-off system.

Vudu has inauspicious roots, all told; it achieved real liftoff as a vehicle for UltraViolet HD once Walmart bought the service and began advertising it as a digital-HD standard on all of its in-store offerings - and Walmart, the home of in-house products that exchange quality and durability for price to its logical termination point (generally the point where the coffee table you buy explodes into a desolation of particle board and sawdust once you spill a few drops of water on it), is generally not the starting point for a real winner as far as the cutting edge of technology. Flying in the face of this logic is the reality that Vudu is a real winner. It almost indisputably represents the audiovisual pinnacle of the form for streaming HD at this point in time, due almost entirely to its HDX standard and its capitalization of H.265 in order to offer newer movies in Ultra HD.

Its catalog is also considerably more muscular than any of its streaming competitors save iTunes, and this has to do with the unique position the company finds itself in with regard to the two main digital-HD pay-per-title providers: Disney Digital (which represents Walt Disney Pictures, its subsidiaries, LucasFilm, and Marvel) and Ultraviolet HD (which represents just about every other major studio in existence). Both of these standards are proprietary, and they don’t play well together - i.e. a Disney Digital title cannot be obtained through the Ultraviolet service, and vice versa. Vudu, however, operates a streaming license with both of these standards, and it is the only Ultraviolet or Disney Digital provider to do so (iTunes does allow streaming, but not outside of the Apple ecosystem).

Like iTunes, Vudu offers both rental and sale of most of its movies and TV shows, with prices comparable to what you’d pay for the physical disc. Vudu also chases customers aggressively via constantly updating and revolving sales on its products - generally in connection with a holiday, but also through monthly and bundle deals. For the compulsive Internet shopper or the movie buff, the Vudu storefront—whether by Web or by app—is so alluring and gratifying that it feels almost forbidden; you’re really not sure if you should have linked your credit card to your account, but you suffered through DivX for this kind of opportunity, and by God if anyone or anything is going to stand in your way now.

HDX uses a proprietary Vudu procedure called TruFilm, which in most ways is a fancy way of saying that it performs similar algorithmic inspection of each title to Netflix. The difference is in the variability of the bitrate; Netflix encodes its titles over a hundred times to find the best balance between bitrate and quality, but the encode is still then completed as a constant. Vudu deploys selectively variable bit rates, with its TruFilm algorithm searching for and targeting areas of a title that contain bit-intensive activity (fast motion, high contrast, complicated visual effects), and allocating an increased bit budget specifically to those parts of the overall title in order to increase perceived clarity and quality. It deploys Dolby Digital Plus, but it does so at a higher bitrate and with support for 7.1 sound (on newer titles, at least); Vudu takes it a step further with Ultra HD titles and encodes those as Dolby Atmos.

The TruFilm procedure and the HDX designation are not idle buzzwords; the jump in quality is large enough that when the designation was introduced in 2008, titles purchased had to be downloaded before they’d play. The bitrate involved here is already more versatile than Netflix’s owing to the variability, but the average bitrate is also higher. Accordingly, I judge the video quality of an HDX title as superior to any other streaming format at the present time, and one that comes the closest to capturing the same sense of depth and color as a Blu-ray disc. Audio is similarly advantaged, with the greater bitrate allowing for more dynamic range and better separation between channels.

The five content providers outlined above are so included to give us an idea of how to properly assess HD cinema is in a streaming context. That assessment appears to be that streaming is in all likelihood actually the successor to physical media that it’s been marketed as being, particularly when it comes to Ultra HD/4K material. This is not something I would have identified as a conclusion based on Hulu/Netflix/Amazon video quality of five years ago, nor of Vudu’s pre-HDX offerings, and in a way that paints a clearer picture of one way in which the ephemeral nature of digital content provides an immeasurable advantage: the provider has the ability to improve fidelity, color depth, and resolution for a title within the context of that title’s existing presence. Remember the initial Blu-ray release of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element? The video quality was not only inferior to the HD material released around it, but arguably worse than the Collector’s Edition DVD that had come out a year or two prior.

Sony eventually fixed the issue by striking a new Blu-ray from a better master, and for a period of time would-be viewers had to differentiate between the bad copy and the good copy by way of a production number on the back of the exterior case. If we transpose this scenario to Vudu, the route to resolution is invisible: Sony would strike a new HDX encode, and it would simply be linked to the same electronic key as the old encode while the old file is ditched. The user sees a substandard product one day and an improved product the next.

Where do we go from here? My guess is an eventual cross-over with the emerging VR aspect of gaming; at a certain point, Vudu’s listing will update (I know my favoritism shows, and I don’t even care) and we will have the option of HDX, UHD, and an HD-VR edition of the film that’s been re-engineered by the studio, in the same fashion that certain 2D films are [needlessly] post-converted to 3D, and the purchaser of this edition will experience a version of the film that offers something like total immersion and possibly interactivity. The germs of this exist today, in video feeds and scenes from films that users are able to manipulate as far as 2D perspective, but the overall concept is advanced enough to where it still sounds a little far-flung.

This type of immersion, or something like it, is ultimately where we’ve been heading for a while now: the cinema experience graduated years ago into the realm where an in-home viewing can provide some of the same raw audiovisual punch that a theater does, and the home environment is uniquely suited to push the immersive aspect of the medium further than a public environment ever could.

If you’ve read through the last four Intermittent Issues columns, thanks for sticking it out to the end. Via the introduction and development of HD and digital delivery, the past ten years have changed and broadened and democratized cinema in ways that I think are unmatched even by the initial advent of VHS and DVD. I can’t wait to see what the next ten years bring.*

*You know you’re as eager as I am to experience a 4K VR version of the Harry Potter series; don’t lie to yourself.