TV

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

Earlier this year, we did a quick guide to all the various sources of video entertainment, prioritized by the quality of presentation from worst to best. In light of recent developments, though—the Game of Thrones debacle, the discovery that not all steaming devices deliver the same quality, and the emergence of services like YouTube as providers of exceptional content—we thought it would be a good time to revisit the most common methods of accessing movies and TV shows with an eye toward not just the quality of presentation but also the quality of content they provide. Because those two criteria don’t always align. As the general public recently found out (the hard way, unfortunately), some of the most enticing content is being delivered in less-than-enticing ways.

 

 

Cable & Satellite

DELIVERY  Really starting to show their age

CONTENT  Offer some cutting-edge programming, but without being able to show it to its best advantage

You could argue we’re living in a golden age of television, at least in terms of writing, directing, acting, and cinematography. Game of Thrones (minus the last season or two), ChernobylBillions, and American Gods are all beautifully-crafted fare. But the creators of these shows tend to suffer from “Cable Channel Syndrome,” often biting off more than their delivery platforms can chew. As such their efforts can look downright terrible.

 

Unfortunately, that poor presentation can follow these shows from broadcast to streaming, since so many premium cable networks offer online apps based on technology that’s not quite as outdated as cable and satellite, but close enough. At the very least, they all seem to be stuck in the cable-delivery mentality, mostly broadcasting their shows in HD, not Ultra HD (aka 4K), aside from the rare (and much later) release on UHD Blu-ray and/or Kaleidescape. Simply put, a lot of what’s being created for cable these days deserves a much better presentation than what it’s getting.

 

 

Internet TV

DELIVERY Slightly better than satellite or cable

CONTENT  Virtually identical to cable or satellite

Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now, which attempt to replicate the experience of cable and satellite via the internet, and use cloud servers instead of hard drives for DVR storage, also tend to have the same content as satellite and cable. The delivery quality is generally a little better, although not always, since most of these services rely on outdated compression codecs and generally offer little or no 4K programming.

 

As for the quality of the content, it’s basically what you’d find on cable or satellite, with the same advantages and disadvantages. Most of these services provide the basics, like TNT, TBS, FX, USA, etc., but also let you add a subscription for HBO, Showtime, and other premium offerings for about the same upcharge you’d see on your monthly cable bill.

 

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast TV

DELIVERY  Pretty darn good—but we’re talking HD, not 4K

CONTENT  What you’d expect from broadcast networks

The tried-and-true TV antenna is making a comeback, especially with cord cutters, and in some markets it gives you access to potentially dozens of free channels offering programming from the major broadcast networks as well as some local shows you can’t get anywhere else.

 

These broadcasts almost always look better than cable, satellite, or internet TV because they’re less compressed. The quality of content, though, really depends on where you live. But chances are good that no matter your locale, you can access The Good Place—one of the most innovative and intelligent shows you can findvia an antenna of one sort or another.

 

 

Standalone Studio Streaming Apps

DELIVERY  Good enough HD for now—but the Disney+ service could help change that for the better

CONTENT  All over the place—but that should improve, too

The streaming marketplace is growing at an unsustainable rate, with new services popping up on a regular basis, dangling the promise of exclusive content in front of potential viewers for an extra however-many bucks per month. Some of these shows are actually quite good, like Doom Patrol from DC Universe and Star Trek: Discovery from CBS All Access. Unfortunately, for now, such services are mostly limited to HD, with outdated video codecs, and many offer stereo sound at best.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

That will change quite a bit when Disney+ launches later this year. With a movie library including Disney Classics, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and more, this will likely be the No. 1 must-have streaming service for most families. Disney is also developing a ton of new app-exclusive shows for the platform, like The Mandalorian (Star Wars—shown above) and Loki (Marvel), and the company has promised to deliver applicable content in 4K with HDR.

 

 

Hulu

DELIVERY  HD at the moment—although they might decide to offer 4K again

CONTENT  Some standout original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale

In addition to providing on-demand access to a good number of broadcast and cable TV shows, Hulu actually has some excellent original programming, headlined by The Handmaid’s Tale. But the quality of presentation doesn’t stack up against bigger streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For about two years, Hulu quietly offered some of their shows (including The Handmaid’s Tale) in 4K, but just as quietly removed all support for 4K last year. There have been some hints they might offer 4K again, but as of now there’s no official timeline for that to happen.

 

In other words, if you ignore the handful of compelling originals, most people should probably look at Hulu as a replacement for cable or satellite (unless you’re a sports fan). The good news is, the picture and sound are vastly better than what you’re likely to get from Comcast or Dish Network. But that’s a pretty low bar, to be honest.

 

 

YouTube

DELIVERY  Can be first-rate—but how many vloggers do you really want to see in 4K HDR?

CONTENT  Only as good as the people producing & posting it—but a lot of it is innovative & excellent

Once the bastion of cat videos and puerile vlogs, these days YouTube sort of breaks all molds of content creation and delivery. Yes, you can buy or rent major studio movies and TV shows there, but the real appeal is that anyone can create 

content for the site. In any form. At any quality. And as such, it’s a wild and wonderful mixed bag.

 

You’ll find innovative programming like Critical Role, alongside goofy (but utterly watchable) larks like Jelle’s Marble Runsstuff the likes of which you just won’t find anywhere else. There’s also wholly entertaining but undeniably educational programming like Smarter Every Day and Physics Girl. And while it’s true that some amateur content creators still upload videos that look like they were shot on a potato, many of the best of them have adopted high-quality prosumer gear that makes their clips look as good as anything you’ll see anywhere else.

 

Really, only the top-tier streaming platforms like Vudu, Netflix, and Amazon look better than what YouTube is capable of at its best, mostly because the service’s owner, Google, is blazing trails in terms of compression codecs. YouTube is also one of the very few providers already offering up content in 8K-and-greater resolutions. And it’s home to some of the most stunning 4K/HDR AV demos you’ll find anywhere.

 

 

Amazon Prime Video

DELIVERY  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

CONTENT  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

Amazon is, in many ways, playing catch-up to the streaming leader, Netflix. But you could argue that, at least with the quality of their original shows, they’re not far behind. The past couple years have seen an influx of stellar content like The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselTransparent, and HomecomingAnd with a billion-dollar-plus Lord of the Rings-inspired TV series in the works, the company’s commitment to being taken seriously as a major content creator is undeniable.

 

Unfortunately, Amazon’s support for Dolby Vision and Atmos for its own content is extremely limited, and the Prime Video search engine is atrocious via any device other than Amazon’s own Fire TV. Somebody (who has hopefully been fired) decided it was a good idea to list 4K versions separately from HD, and oftentimes the 4K versions don’t even show up in searches within the app.

 

In other words, at its best Amazon Prime may look as good as what you’re getting from the average Netflix original these days. But finding new content to watch can be a struggle, and finding it in the best available quality can be a snipe hunt.

 

 

Netflix

DELIVERY  Unmatched for a provider of original content

CONTENT  Nobody does it better when it comes to fresh takes on existing genres

Netflix is really leading the way when it comes to delivering top-notch video programming with high-quality picture and sound. The service is spending gobs of money to produce some of the most critically-acclaimed movies and series, most of which can’t be viewed anywhere else, like Roma, Our Planet, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. And as we discussed in a recent episode of the Cineluxe Hour podcast, Netflix has also developed a reputation for taking more creative risks than other content creators, which likely plays some role in the buzz that surrounds so many of its originals.

 

What many people may not realize is that, although Netflix is known for giving writers and directors a long creative leash, the service has some of the most stringent audio and video quality standards around. 4K and HDR (including Dolby Vision) are the norm for any new movies and shows, and the service even offers a decent smattering of titles in Dolby Atmos. What’s more, it recently introduced adaptive studio-quality sound that’s only available to viewers with surround sound or Atmos systems—just one example of the company’s commitment to audiovisual excellence. Granted, the quality of presentation can depend on how you’re accessing the app. But apart from UHD Blu-ray discs or Kaleidescape, Netflix is at the top of the quality mountain for presentation, and arguably for content.

 

 

Vudu & iTunes

DELIVERY  Consistently excellent

CONTENT  No original programming—traditional Hollywood fare instead

Vudu and iTunes don’t create original content—at least not 

yet—but they do offer access to a gigantic catalog of movies and TV shows from most of the major studios. Also, unlike most streaming services, they work primarily on an à la carte purchase model, meaning you don’t pay a monthly fee, but rather pick and choose what you buy or rent (an option Amazon also dabbles in).

 

Both Vudu and iTunes give you the option of downloading movies, but most people simply stream them in real time. If you have a decent-enough internet connection, they can deliver quality on par with Netflix (meaning nearly as good as discs), and both offer tons of movies in 4K/HDR with Dolby Atmos sound.

 

These services do have a very Hollywood-driven mindset, though, so expect to see very traditional offerings, with the latest Hollywood blockbusters put in front of you on a regular basis. Whether or not that floats your boat is entirely subjective, of course.

 

 

UHD Blu-ray & Kaleidescape

DELIVERY  Unrivaled

CONTENT  No original programming, but extremely deep catalogs

While the very best streaming services like Netflix and Vudu may be pushing audio and video quality to the point of diminishing returns, UHD Blu-ray discs (if you have a lot of free shelf space) and Kaleidescape downloads (if you’re done with discs) are still the only way to ensure the absolute best in compromise-free audio and video presentation. Streaming at its best gets close, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough.

 

Both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape mostly serve to deliver major-studio content. But Kaleidescape in particular makes it very easy to find the best of this content thanks to its curated collections. Want to buy all of 2019’s Golden Globe nominees? They’re just a single click-and-a-download away. The Kaleidescape store also has nearly 80 of AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time, and nearly 75 years’ worth of Best Picture Oscar winners. Frankly, none of the streaming services comes anywhere close to that. What’s more, Kaleidescape’s innovative user interface makes it easier than ever to find exactly the right movie to scratch your current itch, even if you’re not sure what that itch is.

John Higgins & Dennis Burger

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Why “Game of Thrones” Looked Like Crap

Why "Game of Thrones" Looked Like Crap

If you spent any amount of time on social media this past Sunday night or Monday morning, you were probably inundated with tweets, grams, and posts about Game of Thrones. The episode, “The Long Night,” has been a long time coming. White Walkers and the people of Westeros met at Winterfell in a battle of epic proportions. After two episodes of everyone coming together to protect humanity, the viewing public was aching for a fight. But most of the online feedback wasn’t about the content of the episode. Sure, there was some bickering about who killed who—and for good reason. But the real issue was this:

 

It looked terrible.

 

Many lamented that the episode was too dark, and it was hard to see what was going on. It was a night battle that lasted 82 minutes, notoriously shot over 55 consecutive night shoots. The episode’s director of photography, Fabian Wagner, discussed his approach for the episode with the Vanity Fair podcast “Still Watching,” and that the series in general is shot using a lot of 

natural light. The idea was to be able to “evolve the lighting” and have the “storytelling of the lighting evolve with the storytelling of the characters.” Unfortunately, it led to an incredibly dark presentation that was difficult to follow. (If you remember, there were similar complaints when Solo was released, a dark film shot with natural light that looked awful when shown at improperly-calibrated theaters.)

 

In a way, the experience was heavily dependent on the quality of your display and calibration. If your display crushes black at all, you’re losing detail. If your display has a high black level, you’re also losing detail. And any ambient light in the room at all can make it hard to see.

 

But the most egregious issue of all didn’t have anything to do with the filmmaking. It was due to how the episode was delivered by HBO. Every single shot had banding artifacts caused by the compression. No one was safe from it. Not Jon Snow, or Daenerys Targaryen, not even the White Walkers. It consumed the entire episode.

 

Some articles point to the fact that everyone was streaming it at the same time, causing the system to overload. So far, I’ve watched the episode in three ways: A recorded version from DirecTV, a stream from the HBO Go app on an Xbox One X, and a stream from the HBO Go app on a Sony X950G. All three exhibited the banding and blocky blacks, although the stream from the app on the Sony looked the best.

 

There wasn’t one particular problem that led to the poor presentation of this long-awaited episode, but rather a snowball of issues. The way it was shot was already going to challenge displays—especially those with black-level 

issues (hello LCD!). That HBO didn’t seem to take that into account and used the same compression they use on everything only made it worse. Finally, most home displays aren’t calibrated (or have the aforementioned black-level problems) and had no chance.

 

The last remaining hope for “The Long Night” is that HBO will address this issue when it releases it on (hopefully) 4K Blu-ray. But at the rate they’re releasing the seasons on UHD, we might have a better chance of seeing George R.R. Martin actually finish writing the series.

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

Of all the excellent points John Sciacca made in his latest piece, “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy,one in particular leapt right off the page at me. Near the end, he recommends an ingenious solution to the problem of Peak Subscription Saturation: A unified “Premier Pass,” where streaming services join forces under a single banner, a single subscription, and divvy up the profits between them.

 

Unfortunately, that seems like an unlikely solution, especially given the corporate politics that have plagued and continue to plague streaming conglomerates like Hulu. But there’s already a precedent for John’s idea. One of the best-kept secrets in all of geekdom, it’s called VRV (pronounced “verve”), and it’s quickly becoming my go-to source for streaming video.

 

A word of warning for you Muggles in the audience: The next few sentences are going to get pretty geeky, so feel free to jump past the next line break. At any rate, I stumbled across VRV in my quest for a way to watch the streaming service Project Alpha in my media room via my Roku. As of late, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Critical Role, in which a group of voice-actor friends stream their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for the world to watch. It’s honestly one of the

most compelling and entertaining programs I’ve ever seen. And yes, you can watch the show for free on YouTube, but we wanted to financially support its creators as well as gain access to the exclusive character portraits, hit-point counters, and ad-free graphics available only to paid subscribers of Alpha. (You can see those in the clip at right, and contrast them with the graphics for the free Critical Role YouTube broadcasts here).

But Project Alpha isn’t available on Roku, so we kept watching on the YouTube app instead. It wasn’t until some months later that I stumbled across the VRV app on Roku completely by accident, and found it offered Alpha content. That immediately seemed like the solution to my problem. What I didn’t realize is that it would be a solution to problems I didn’t even know I had.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

What makes VRV great is that it houses a number of geeky streaming services under one umbrella, from the aforementioned Project Alpha (split there into separate Geek & Sundry and Nerdist channels), to classic cartoon channels like Boomerang, to anime streams from Crunchyroll and the like. And you can either subscribe to them à la carte and pay anywhere from $2.49 to $6.95 per service or spring for the lot of 12 different services for $9.99 a month total.

There’s also a free 30-day trial—during which I noticed that CuriosityStream (a documentary service I already subscribed to separately) was included in the package price. Add up the cost of separate CuriosityStream and Project Alpha subscriptions, and you’re within spitting distance of $9.99 a month anyway, so I just went for the complete package and canceled my standalone CuriosityStream sub. Purchased on their own, the subscriptions to all of these services (via VRV or directly) would add up to nearly 50 bucks a month. So, if nothing else, it’s a value.

 

But more than that, it solves the problem of jumping from app to app, service to service, in search of something to watch. Most nights, my wife and I fire up the VRV app when she gets home from work and don’t leave it until we shut down the media room at bedtime. If we’re not in the mood to start a new episode of Critical Role, there’s a vast collection of old Looney Tunes cartoons just a few clicks away, or that David Attenborough documentary we’ve been meaning to check out, or a compelling collection of curated spooky movies courtesy of Shudder if the mood strikes.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV also has something most streaming apps don’t: A really gorgeous and simple-to-navigate user interface that includes the features you might expect—like a “Continue Watching” shortcut and a watchlist management tool that puts Amazon Instant’s to shame—along with some unexpected niceties like a universal search function.

 

I get that not everyone will be into the sorts of programming offered by VRV, like video gaming or roleplaying or LARPing or miniature painting or quantum physics or classic cartoons, much less Japanese animation. But if nothing else, VRV serves as a role model for how independent streaming providers can learn to get along.

 

Sure, Boomerang may not be getting as much coin out of me every month as they would if I subscribed to their service directly. But guess what? I almost certainly wouldn’t drop $4.99 a month on Boomerang by itself, no matter how much I love some old-school Scooby-Doo.

 

Of course, it’s not surprising that a bunch of streaming services targeted at nerds were the ones to figure this out. Despite the fact that geek culture dominates popular culture these days, all of this is still—for whatever reason—viewed as niche content. So, the corporate overlords at Geek & Sundry and Nerdist (both owned by Legendary Entertainment), Crunchyroll (owned by WarnerMedia), Boomerang (Turner Broadcasting), NickSplat (Viacom), and others probably figured their chances were better if they banded together.

 

As with most things, though, the geeks were simply the first to figure out a way to make this new paradigm work to everyone’s benefit. Because if mainstream entertainment providers don’t follow the same template eventually, the streaming landscape is going to turn into The Hunger Games. And the odds won’t necessarily be in anyone’s favor.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & PIracy

Things were back in the day that if you subscribed to cable, you could expect to watch any TV content that came along. You paid a single monthly fee to the local cable provider, and you got their slate of programming. If you wanted to expand your viewing horizons to include movies, you could either wait and rent the videotape—VHS or Beta!—or add one of the nascent premium channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or The Movie Channel. But all original programming was essentially available to anyone willing to pony up for a cable subscription.

 

But, boy have times changed. Today, some of the very best original content is exclusively available on paid services. This trend can be traced back to HBO’s experimentation—and success—with original programming starting in the early ‘90s

with such shows as Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On . . ., and The Larry Sanders Show.

 

Today, however, it isn’t just one or two services offering exclusive content, but many, with more seemingly coming every day. Sure, there’s still HBO with its award-winning Westworld, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and more. And Showtime, with Ray Donovan, Billions, Homeland, and others.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Of course, you can’t forget the original streaming juggernaut, Netflix, which seemingly produces a new “must see!” show every day. In fact, Netflix has so much terrific original programming it barely seems to concern itself with providing Hollywood fare any longer. Besides its marquee titles like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, and Stranger Things, there’s recent epic fare like BirdboxTaylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Roma, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

 

Then there’s Amazon Prime, which has been quick to join the original-programming game with features like Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Homecoming, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

Beyond that you have Hulu, with The Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63, and Castle Rock (review coming soon), among others.

 

And don’t forget YouTube Premium, which is trying to get all those eyeballs that are already tuning in for free homemade videos to pay for new exclusive content. One of the first shows used to attract paying viewers was Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid series. But the company recently announced it plans to release 50 original shows during 2019.

 

Even traditional network channels like CBS are getting involved in the premium streaming game. If you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, Tell Me a Story, or the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, you’ll need a CBS All Access pass.

 

Plus you have Shudder offering original horror content, Apple announcing it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion to acquire and develop original content, DC Entertainment with its DC Universe streaming, and the elephant in the room: The upcoming

Disney streaming service, called Disney+. We’re not even sure what Disney+ will cost, what shows/movies it will have, or the quality of the original content, but already people are calling it the next must-have service. I mean, sure, it might be worth subscribing just to see Star Wars: The Mandalorian (shown above) and The Clone Wars.

 

But getting some shows isn’t always just as easy as pulling out your credit card and clicking the sign-up tab. For example, if you want to enjoy any of the original programming on the Audience network—like the fantastic Mr. Mercedes—you’ll need to subscribe to either DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—a pretty big commitment just to watch a few hours of some show.

 

Of course, exclusives aren’t anything new. They’ve been a part of the video-game industry since the start. For example, if you wanted to play Mario, you needed to buy a Nintendo, but playing Sonic required going with Sega. Still today, games like Halo or Forza require owning an Xbox One, while playing God of War or Spider-Man requires a PlayStation.

Back at the launch of 3D Blu-ray discs, Panasonic and James Cameron played with exclusivity, making the only way to get a copy of Avatar in 3D—the top-grossing film of all time and (arguably) the best use of 3D—by buying a Panasonic 3D TV.

 

This can all lead to a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And then anger. And then piracy.

 

In fact, the pirate streaming service BitTorrent is re-gaining popularity thanks in large part to  these streaming exclusives. Cam Cullen, Vice President of Global Marketing at Sandvine commented, “To get access to all of these services, it gets very expensive for a consumer, so they subscribe to one or two and pirate the rest.”

 

People are clearly getting sick of being nickeled and dimed (or rather $10 to $15’d) to death every time they turn around because they want to watch some new show.

 

While unlikely, one solution would be some kind of unified “Premier Pass” where you pay some amount per month/year and have access to everything. Let the services divvy up the money based on a percentage of usage of each service. They now have the capability to see what and how often we’re watching something, so they could split the money up amongst themselves that way, but give consumers the ability to choose from everything available. Ultimately, the best content will win out by attracting the most eyeballs.

 

This seems to be something the music industry is already figuring out.

 

According to Troy Carter, Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services, “Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.”

 

Even Kanye West is against exclusives. Last year, he Tweeted that streaming wars were “f***ing up the music game.”

 

Amen, Yeezy. Amen.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

Sitting back and relaxing with a favorite movie or TV series is a luxury we can all appreciate. High-end picture and sound are the ideal, but getting to the opening credits can be an experience in and of itself. If we own the content, popping in a Blu-ray is a painless endeavor. Doing the same with a streaming service should be just as painless. That’s not always true, however.

 

When the Amazon series Homecoming was released, my wife and I sat down, turned on our home theater, and opened up the Amazon Prime Video app on the TV to start watching. Since the show was new, and Amazon was promoting it heavily, it was right at the top of the menu. No searching necessary. It was a pretty straightforward experience—at least for a few minutes. I knew from advertisements that Homecoming was offered in 4K, but what we were watching was most definitely

1080p. I found that, unlike Netflix, which automatically shows the best level of content available that your home setup can handle, with Amazon you need to actively search out the UHD version.

 

You’d think it would be as easy as typing in “Homecoming UHD 4K” or something similar. You’d be wrong. That search term, in fact, comes up with no hits. Zero. A show produced by the service itself, heavily marketed with billboards (around the Los Angeles area at least), its stars 

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

frequenting late-night talk shows, nominated for multiple awards—and the app search engine is unaware a 4K version exists. In order to find it, I had to scroll down their category listings until I found “Original Series in 4K Ultra HD.” I would have expected that option to be at or near the top, instead of a few scrolls below the fold.

 

I encountered similar problems when I searched for past seasons of The Expanse, a fantastic adaptation of the book series that Amazon recently picked up from SyFy to produce a fourth season. Even worse than my Homecoming experience, there was no way to find the 4K version through the TV app. (I checked the apps that are integrated on my Samsung QLED, a Vizio P-Series, and my Xbox One X.) The workaround (suggested by Dennis Burger) was to find the 4K-version listing on my computer browser, add it to my Watchlist, and then go back to the TV to select it from the Watchlist. Far less than an ideal situation.

 

So, what’s the solution? I’d say burn it down and start from scratch, using Netflix as an example. But considering the vast amount of work necessary for something like that to happen, it isn’t remotely feasible. This past summer, Amazon did announce an update is in the works, but it sounds like it will be limited to the mobile-app search function and won’t be a part of the TV app. Until then, the only option seems to be to grin and bear it. Or just open up Netflix instead.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Internet TV: Not Quite Ready for Primetime

Internet TV

Last week, I talked about my cord-cutting experience and how, after trying to go on-demand-only with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for a couple months, I realized I still valued the live-TV experience. So I turned my attention to the new crop of Internet TV services: Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV NOW, and YouTube TV. I’ve auditioned all four, and I’ve found that none of them hits the nail squarely on the head.

 

Sure, all four services have benefits that make them more desirable (at least to me) than a cable/satellite subscription. The starting price of most packages is under $40 per month, and there’s no equipment rental fee. If you’re already a cord-cutter, then you already own a streaming media device through which to use these services, so no equipment investment is required. Plus, the services are easy to access through mobile devices and Web browsers, so you can watch your content (most of it, anyhow) anywhere you wish.

 

Probably the biggest selling point, though, is that none of these services requires a long-term commitment. DirecTV, Dish Network, and (in my area) Comcast all want me to enter into a one- or two-year agreement to get any kind of a deal on their TV service. I’ve enjoyed long-term relationships with both DirecTV and Dish Network in the past, but I’m just not in a commitment kind of place at the moment. I want the freedom to play the field.

 

Despite all the benefits, something is missing. For me, a “complete” TV package consists of four things: The channels I want, the DVR functionality I need, a user interface I like, and the picture quality I demand. In some way, each service falls short.

 

Sling TV has the lowest starting price and the most flexibility to tailor a package to my wants, but it doesn’t offer any local channels in my area and charges an extra $5/month for DVR functionality—which, by the way, doesn’t work on a number of channels. Can you imagine your cable/satellite DVR just not working on ESPN?

 

YouTube TV offers all the local channels in a simple, one-size-fits-all package, plus a cloud DVR with unlimited storage. But I can’t manage recordings the way I like, and YouTube TV’s picture quality is the poorest of the group.

 

DirecTV NOW offers a whole lot of channel options and on-demand content, and the four major networks are now available in my area (but not all areas), yet the service’s cloud DVR function can’t seem to get out of the beta-testing phase.

 

Lastly, there’s PlayStation Vue, which also has a lot of channel options as you move up the price chain. ABC, CBS, and NBC are offered in my area, but not Fox. PS Vue has a lot of sports options and unlimited cloud DVR functionality, and it offers the best picture quality. But I’m not a big fan of the interface. In typical Sony fashion, the channel guide is laid out differently than every program guide on the planet, and it’s kind of laborious to move through the design.

 

The good news is, these services seem to be updated regularly—new channels get added, and the user experience gets tweaked. I’m confident we’ll eventually get to the point where Internet TV is indistinguishable from the current cable/satellite norm.

 

In the meantime, I’ve settled down with Sling TV, mated with a Tablo over-the-air network DVR to tune and record my local channels. We’ve got a pretty good thing going—but, I confess, there’s a new guy that’s caught my eye: Hulu with Live TV.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

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ALSO ON CINELUXE

The End of Appointment TV?

appointment TV

I cut the cord about a year and half ago. I bid adieu to Dish Network and tried to embrace a purely on-demand TV experience—via Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, specifically. It worked for a couple months. I watched a lot of movies and stand-up comedy specials. I binge-watched shows like Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why, Grace and Frankie, and Mozart in the Jungle.

 

But something just didn’t feel right. The honeymoon quickly wore off, and I really missed the live-TV experience. I missed channel surfing. I missed primetime TV. And I especially missed sports. As a football fan, Saturdays and Sundays (and Mondays, Thursdays, and sometimes Fridays) just weren’t the same without live TV in the house. I mean, sports bars can be fun, but I don’t want to have to take up residence in one just to see all the games I’d like to see.

 

Eventually, I subscribed to an Internet TV service (Sling TV) and added an over-the-air DVR (Tablo) to get the local channels in my area. That combination has worked great for me—my TV viewing feels whole again. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much life this TV-viewing model has left.

 

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like me were raised on the model of “appointment television.” Shows air at a certain time each week, during certain seasons of the year, and you either watch the new episodes live or record them. The rise of the VCR and especially the DVR, with its easy programming and robust storage capabilities, certainly altered appointment television—but didn’t kill it. Instead of adhering to specific appointment times, we became more like the cable guy: “I’ll watch The Big Bang Theory some time between the hours of 8:00 and 11:30 p.m.”

 

And that still holds true for me today. With the exception of sports and special events like the Oscars, I seldom watch anything live. It’s all recorded . . . but it’s also a safe bet that I’m gonna watch my favorite shows (This Is Us, Speechless, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) within a few hours of recording them. The cord may be cut, but the appointment mindset remains.

 

But what about those people who haven’t had “primetime” ingrained in their psyche since birth? We’re seeing the rise of an entire generation of cord-nevers—people who have never subscribed to a traditional pay-TV service. They watch what they want, when they want, how they want. They expect you to release the entire season of Stranger Things 2 at once so they can binge on it as they desire. They don’t watch reruns. They simply rewatch the really good stuff. I don’t think my nine-year-old has ever uttered the words, “Mom, what time does [insert favorite show of the moment] come on?”

 

For now, the rise of Internet TV services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV shows there is still an audience for appointment TV, even amongst the cord-cutters. I just read a story from FierceCable.com that Internet TV providers gained 2.6 million customers in 2017, totaling about 4.6 million subscribers in all. But the story goes on to say that those numbers only represent about one-third of the people who have walked away from traditional pay-TV service since 2010. The other two-thirds have presumably gone on-demand only (or tuned out entirely).

 

It seems almost inevitable that on-demand will become the new normal, and live TV will become the bonus content. If you’re wondering how that might play out, look no further than Amazon’s deal with the NFL to stream Thursday Night Football to Prime customers this past season. It’s on-demand, with a hint of appointment TV thrown in for good measure.

 

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Disney Gambles Big on Star Wars Streaming

Disney streaming service

For Star Wars fans, last week was a gift that just kept on giving. Not only did we learn that Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming The Last Jedi, is launching a trilogy of films independent from the Skywalker Saga, but Disney also dropped a bomb about a new live-action TV series set in that beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away. This is huge for a number of reasons, not least because George Lucas tried and failed to create a live-action show before selling the Star Wars franchise to Disney in 2012.

 

Maybe more significant, though, is how Disney plans to distribute the series. It’s not coming to the airwaves, nor Netflix, which currently serves as the exclusive home to several Disney-produced Marvel series, including the highly acclaimed Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Instead, the Star Wars show—along with Disney’s films and other properties—will reach consumers’ eyeballs by way of a new streaming video service launching in 2019.

 

It should go without saying that I’ll be signing up for said service the minute it launches. But I think Disney is making a huge mistake. Maybe not in the short term, mind you. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Disney’s stock will get another bump and Netflix’s will take another hit as the studio moves all its films and most of its TV shows to its new, exclusive platform.

 

And for what it’s worth, apparently Disney has no plans to evict Luke Cage and the rest of the Defenders from the only home they’ve ever known, so that’s a plus.

 

I can’t imagine many if any people will dump Netflix entirely for DisneyFlix or whatever it ends up being called. But I still think this move is a net-negative for the streaming-video industry, and for consumers in particular. Why? Because we’re already seeing people approaching a breaking point with the continued fragmentation of the streaming market.

 

In other words, I think we’re reaching Peak Subscription Saturation. For me, subscribing to this new Disney service just to get my weekly Star Wars fix likely means I’ll be dumping Hulu. And if I were also a Star Trek fan subscribing to All Access just to watch Discovery, I’d likely be looking at dumping CBS’s streaming service instead. (Spare me your whining, Trekkies—Star Wars is just better and you know it.)

 

The simple fact is that most people are cutting the cord because of the value proposition. Expensive cable-TV bundles that force you to pay for ESPN if you want to watch Cartoon Network are increasingly becoming a breaking point for most people.

 

Could the exact opposite problem start to hurt the streaming market? Could we literally end up with too much choice instead of too little? It’s entirely possible. After all, who wants to pay $6 or $8 or $10 a month just to watch one TV show? Are you willing to pay $100 a month or more just to have all the streaming apps you would need to subscribe to if all the studios and content providers start their own services? I know I’m not.

 

In the end, I have no doubt Disney’s new streaming service will be successful. Playing the Star Wars card is pretty much the same as having an “I Win” button. But if this streaming fragmentation continues, I also know this just as surely: We—the geeks, the nerds, the regular cinephiles, and the TV junkies—will be the biggest losers.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Breeding “The Office”

making The Office

Contemplating The Office while writing it up for a Netflix Series of the Week, I was struck by its phenomenal bloodlines. While a bad or mediocre show can be the result of random accident (or a series of meetings with studio executives, which is pretty much the same thing), the best shows tend to come from lengthy breeding. And even a cursory look at the convergence of forces that resulted in The Office pretty neatly makes that case.

 

I’m not claiming my evidence is exhaustive. These were just some facts I stumbled upon while digging into the show’s history. There could be major gaps in my argument—I might be missing some major connections. But it doesn’t matter, because what little I’ve been able to put together, mostly out of sheer luck, is impressive on its own.

In the beginning was Spinal Tap—and in particular a DP named Peter Smokler, the former documentarian who pretty much singlehandedly created the mockumentary style that began with Tap, spread into TV with The Larry Sanders Show, and went solidly mainstream with The Office.

 

(The photo in my organizational chart/family tree shows Smokler holding up his legendary poor man’s Steadicam—otherwise known as rollerblades. Seems like money was always tight on the Sanders show.)

 

Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders broke so much new ground it would take a whole series of posts just to list its achievements. But one of its greatest contributions was giving comedy-nerd Judd Apatowwho would rewrite the American-comedy rule bookhis first big break.

 

Sanders was also a training ground for a whole series of directors who would spread the faux-documentary style. One of the most accomplished was Ken Kwapis, who later did episodes of both Freaks and Geeks and The Office.

 

Joel Hodgson’s The TV Wheel always gets treated as a footnote (and is rarely seen) but when you consider its influence, it’s a hell of a big footnote. His somewhat clumsy attempt to regain his reputation after being ousted from MST3K, it’s a pretty funny stab at reinventing sketch comedy.

Two of its writers were Apatow and Paul Feig. Feig also performed on the show (which only lasted one episode), nailing it as the sleazy magic-catalog pitchman in the almost perfect “Pumpernickel.”

 

Feig and Apatow were the guiding forces behind yet another groundbreakingand at the time unappreciatedseries, Freaks and Geeks, which launched the careers of Apatow stock-company members Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen. It also featured a series of cameos by Hodgson as the uncoolest hipster ever.

 

Of all the directors who did episodes of The Office—and there were some pretty big names, including Harold Ramis, Joss Whedon, and J.J. AbramsFeig probably had the biggest impact.

 

Geeks’ inspired casting was largely the work of Allison Jones, who did a similarly brilliant job on Arrested Development and on Apatow’s breakout film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. Her deft touch gathering ensembles got her The Office gig.

 

And Virgin was Steve Carell’s breakout film too, of course, which happened pretty much simultaneously with the debut of The Office.

 

Ricky Gervais’ original British Office series was obviously the basis of the American off-shoot, and Greg Daniels, who would produce, write, and direct episodes of the series, was mainly responsible for developing it for American TV. But if you want an explanation for why The Office is so distinct from Gervais’ series, and why it blew almost everything on TV out of the water, I don’t think you have to look any farther than the pedigree outlined here.

 

To study The Office is to cross paths with pretty much everything that’s been great in American comedy over the past 30 years. And that was no random accident.

—Michael Gaughn

making The Office

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.