A Tired Old Script: Web Movie Innovation Thwarted by Studios

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, June 5, 2008

The latest plot twist in home movie viewing comes courtesy of a black box not much bigger than a VHS cassette.

This $99.99 gadget, like many other new video devices, connects to both a TV and a home network to bring movies off the Internet. But unlike competitors, it also connects to one of the most popular video-rental services in the United States: Netflix.

And on it, you can watch all the movies you want with any Netflix subscription of $8.99 or more per month.

In some alternative universe, Roku's Netflix Player might become as essential as a DVD player for movie fans. But because the Netflix Player only accesses a tiny fraction of that service's vast catalog, it's now more of a curiosity, a novelty for niche markets.

Or, to phrase things as politely as possible: None of the Netflix Player's core problems can be blamed on its hardware or software. This box -- made by the Saratoga, Calif., firm behind a few elegant, simple wireless receivers that play Web radio and music stored on a computer through your stereo -- is far more appealing than the PC-based "watch instantly" feature Netflix launched in January 2007.

That option limits you to viewing a movie on a computer's screen unless you have hooked it up to an HDTV with a PC-compatible video input. And it comes with infuriatingly limited system requirements: You have to run Microsoft's Internet Explorer in Windows XP or Vista, then consent to the installation of an array of video and "digital rights management" browser add-ons before watching anything.

With the Netflix Player you only need a computer to visit Netflix's site, pick out movies and add them to the "watch instantly" queue. So you can run any browser you like and don't need to add any strange software.

The player connects to both wired and wireless networks. The only difficult part of setting up a review unit loaned by Roku was "typing" a WiFi network password by selecting letters and numbers from the TV's screen with a simple nine-button remote.

Roku's box doesn't store movies for offline viewing, instead relying on broadband connection to stream them directly from Netflix's site. But to keep you from waiting more than a minute for a TV show or movie to start, Netflix must trade quality for a fast download.

On a DSL connection with an unremarkable speed of 1.5 million bits per second, video on the Roku box was limited to half of peak quality. That meant that while the picture generally looked fine on an old, standard-definition cathode-ray tube TV, most text in movies' closing credits was blurred beyond recognition.

At one point, the Roku box felt compelled to downshift to the lowest possible quality level, which made the subtitles in "Nanking" difficult to read.

When paired with a much faster connection and a high-def LCD at washingtonpost.com's offices, Netflix could serve up its highest possible picture, advertised as "DVD-quality." But on that sharper screen, things somehow seemed worse.

Where the tube TV's low resolution soaked up the defects of the compressed video screen, the LCD's higher resolution magnified such flaws as blurry, blotchy backgrounds and occasional flickering in "Blade Runner."

While watching, you can pause and skip forward or backward with the remote, much as you would with a DVD. Once ensconced on the couch, you can easily think you're watching a movie just as you always have at home.

But when you return to Netflix's site to choose the next movie, the limits of this system smack you in the face. The "over 10,000" movies and TV shows that Netflix says are available through this player may sound like plenty, but not when compared to the 100,000-plus DVDs it offers for rent.

To put this in more concrete terms, Netflix has DVDs of all 25 of the movies The Post's movie critics picked as the best of 2007 but offers only four for instant viewing.

That's weak.

It's not Netflix's fault, any more than the woeful selections of every other movie-download store can be blamed on Amazon, Apple or Microsoft. Blame the movie studios instead. They have foolishly stuck to marketing strategies that might have made sense when movies had to be trucked across the country -- not when they can fly across the Internet in minutes or, at most, hours.

The Web could be the greatest distribution mechanism this industry has ever seen. But more than 5 1/2 years after the first legitimate movie-download services, unauthorized file-sharing sites have done far more to exploit the Internet's capabilities than the studios, which still offer only tiny, seemingly random selections from their libraries online.

In about the same span of time, record labels have advanced from their early, clumsy attempts at Web distribution to sell almost their entire catalogues in open formats that work on a variety of devices through numerous online stores.

How much longer do the studios think they can keep pretending the Internet is some weird little experiment confined to a lab somewhere?

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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