An even better irony is that users quickly adapt to the degradation, and only a minority come to believe they should expect any better.
Of course "quality" is a word that can be interpreted many ways, but here I mean the quality of transparency -- the lowest possible barrier to the highest possible experience. The least amount of obstacle between you and exactly what the artists, producers and engineers intended to express for you.
Across the spectrum of our creative world, any medium that can be digitized has been digitized, and usually -- ultimately -- to the detriment of the experience.
You see it easily in photography, where the ability to take an acceptable photo from any device with as little user involvement as possible has negated the need or desire for qualities like focus, depth of field and selective exposure.
Naturally, you see it in movies -- or anything else you watch on TV -- as well. Which leads to today's screed about streamed entertainment.
In the 1970s, we saw the introduction of the VCR. You could record a show at one time and watch it at another. A great step forward. In the 1980s, there was the laserdisc, which promised the best possible image quality, director's cuts and movie extras, all of which we've come to expect today. In the 1990s, there was DVD, with better resolution than any VCR could dream of. Followed by HDTV, which vaulted everything into a new sphere of realism that we now take for granted.
Streaming is the next logical step in this chain -- the ability to have all the benefits of everything previously mentioned, only without the cumbersome need for physical media like discs or visits to the video store. It's the ultimate in convenience. Or would be, if it worked. Or will be, one day when it does.
The Problem Of Selection
While Netflix and Roku aren't the only offenders on this topic, they make for a nice, ready example.
Recently skimming through Netflix on said Roku, I came across a documentary series called "Classic Albums." The series focuses on the creation of classic music recordings, featuring interviews with the artists, engineers, critics, etc. I had never heard of this series and clicked to watch the segment on Steely Dan's "Aja", which was highly enjoyable and illuminating. Assuming there would be other such segments, I searched "Classic Albums" in the Netflix search function. Or would have, if it let me enter all those letters -- the search function only allows 13 characters.
Netflix then dutifully showed me a list of segments in the series that I could watch. As you can see, they are un-alphabetized, which is annoying but not disastrous. What was disastrous was that unless I knew exactly what to look for, I could not find out what other segments there were in the series -- other than what was in this list. There is no "next screen" function on the Roku.
A trip to my computer and the Netflix site showed me there are 36 segments in this series. But there was no way to know this without the trip to the PC. Here we have a case where the limitations of the device -- in this case, the search and browse functions -- have actually cut down on choice, rather than enable it.
The Problem Of Delivery
If you've ever watched a streamed movie on Netflix, Amazon or any of the other popular services, you've probably run into a streaming problem at least once. The culprit here could be inside your house -- bad wi-fi, for example. Or it could be outside your house -- your neighbors hogging bandwidth by streaming or downloading at the same time you are. Or it could be outside the state, with overloaded servers unable to keep up with user demand.
High definition video is a bear to move over the Internet -- a ton of data that has to transfer flawlessly in real time. It's a goal that isn't always attained, and to bring the point home, services like Amazon (among others) will tell you at the outset, before you rent, that you may not get what you paid for.
For example, I recently "rented" the film "Goodfellas" from Amazon. This was one of the earliest DVD hits -- so early in fact, that my DVD copy actually has to be flipped over to watch the last third of the film. Things have come a long way since then, or so I had thought.
Upon agreeing to pay Amazon $3.99 for the HD rental instead of $2.99 for standard def, I was greeted with Amazon's message that at their discretion, they could change the stream to standard definition during playback. This of course, would only happen if they (Amazon) determined that my streaming connection wasn't good enough for HD. Of course it is, but this didn't stop the movie from moving down from HD to SD at several points in the film.
To cap things off, the movie stopped altogether at the last third, while Amazon took a minute or two to "re-stream" and fill its buffer. I might as well have gotten up to flip the disc over.
The Problem Of Quality
As mentioned, HD is a technical challenge over a streaming connection. Any time you rewind a scene, you need to fill the buffer again, meaning you get only SD until the buffer catches up. This sounds minor, but watching your picture quality change back and forth from HD to something that looks like QuickTime 1.0 can be disproportionately disconcerting. The immersive aspect of the experience is lost.
Of course all this assumes that you're even able to watch the stream without further interruption. During a recent viewing of an old 30 Rock episode, the connection was lost altogether; the Roku box asked to check connections; our network did not show up on the list of "seen" wi-fi, and I had to re-connect.
That meant going through the setup menu, making sure that our network's name and password were entered and trying to re-connect. After several attempts, I was successful. My wife put it succinctly -- "If you weren't here, I couldn't watch the TV." That's not good.
In time -- we're told -- all this will get better. Our broadband connections will be faster. Our user interfaces -- for lack of a better term, the TV Guide -- will get better. Our content will all be in HD, and get even better from there.
I'd love to believe all this, but evidence points to the contrary. Ten years after the iPod was introduced, music sounds worse than ever. It's been almost twenty years since the introduction of the first digital cameras, but the hot ticket in photography is an app that makes your pictures look like they were taken on a cheap instamatic from the 1960s.
It's been ten years since HDTV hit the consumer market, and four years since Blu-ray won its format war with HD-DVD. But in all too many cases, the user experience isn't much better than what I remember from VHS.
That's not good either.