Netflix crystalized the idea of an internet service that streamed unlimited amounts of TV and movies into your home. It redefined television production with House of Cards, bringing a bona fide original series straight to the net. And with documentaries like The Battered Bastards of Baseball, it took the idea of original programming to new heights. But the company isn’t finished.
So many companies are now pushing into the world of internet television, from Amazon to HBO to CBS. But in the foreseeable future, no single outfit will do more to improve your television experience than Netflix. Yes, it will continue to offer new and original series, but more than that, it will change the technology we use to watch shows and movies, pushing things like ultra-high resolution video and a new breed of television that’s better suited to online streaming.
The 4K Front
Netflix was the first company to roll out 4K video, an ultra-high definition image that offers several times the detail of standard HD images. It began offering 4K versions of shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad nearly a year ago.
Most people don’t have the 4K TVs needed to watch these ultra-high definition shows. But Netflix sees where the world is moving, and unlike others, it’s in a position to accelerate the process. Netflix was the first to roll out 4K, says Avi Greengart, a research director with marker research firm called Current Analysis, because many other didn’t have the option. “It could, and its competitors can’t,” Greengart says. “4K requires more bandwidth than may cable and satellite systems have available.”
The company may also see 4K as a way to push so much data through ISP pipes that its partners have no choice but to sign on to the Netflix Open Connect Initiative, an effort to deliver its shows and movies from machines as close as possible to the viewer. It’s a complicated program, but the bottom line is that Open Connect is a way for Netflix to deliver video without clogging up internet pipes—and without being so dependent on big internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.
The end result is still that Netflix has given the next-generation standard a jumpstart that might otherwise have taken years. “[It] helps solve the chicken-and-egg problem that comes with all new TV technologies,” says Netflix spokesperson Cliff Edwards. “We’re creating a catalog of content people can watch from the very early days of a technology.” If you think that’s not important, the 3DTV industry might disagree.
Is it working? In December, about eight months after Netflix debuted 4K on its service, Amazon followed suit.
But this is merely a first step. Netflix is also pushing what’s called high-dynamic range (HDR) content, which could improve the fidelity of TV shows even more.
HDR sounds like just another buzzword, but like 4K, it can significantly improve your TV viewing experience. Think of it as contrast ratio on steroids. Whites are whiter. Blacks are blacker. And together, they create an image that feels less like the washed out approximation we’re used to and more like being there. Greengart calls the technology the “clean winner” when compared to 4K, in terms of noticeable benefit to the consumer.
The problem, says Greengart, is that the “manufacturing side is a mess,” because HDR requires everyone from content producers to television OEMs to get on board. Dolby has taken a lead on the equipment side with its Dolby Vision initiative, but it will be years before HDR televisions are anything approaching mainstream.
In fact, Greengart says, HDR suffers from chicken-and-egg syndrome even more acutely than 4K. “Display panels are being produced with higher pixel density. A lot of content is produced in 4K or better resolution already for commercial cinemas, 4K TVs have dropped dramatically in price, especially in China,” he explains, ticking off the factors that conspire to make 4K an inevitability. HDR doesn’t have that built-in infrastructure. But it has Dolby, and it has Netflix.
Much like in 4K, Netflix gains the first-mover advantage of not just providing HDR content to early adopters, but being effectively the only provider of any quantity. It’s also a clever bit of future-proofing. If and when HDR does populate our living rooms, Netflix will have a back catalogue of original series like Marco Polo waiting for it.
Netflix is also taking important steps towards fixing the overall streaming TV experience. It doesn’t matter how perfect an image if you can’t effectively stream the thing over the net. That’s why this spring, crammed in next to the contrast ratio claims and output options, you’ll see a new badge adorning the packages for several new televisions: “Netflix Recommended TV.”
Yes, Netflix gives the tag to television manufactures that provide a streaming experience that’s fast and easy to navigate, among other criteria. It encourages one-button Netflix access, but it doesn’t require such a button, and ultimately, the effect of the badge extends well beyond Netflix.
“Smart TVs” are often anything but—a mess of clunky interfaces and buggy experiences that quickly make you realize you should have just bought a Roku. Netflix Recommended TV will give the first-time consumer a ready way to tell good from garbage. And TV manufacturers who keep whiffing with their own home-grown, jerky-jerky software will finally have incentive to either improve or, more likely, bail in favor of partnering with someone who knows what they’re doing.
“The ultimate goal here is to up the game for all Internet television, putting it on a level playing field with internet TV, where you don’t have to change inputs or suffer interminable delays in getting to what you want to watch,” says Netflix’s Edwards. “What benefits us ultimately may benefit some of our competitors—and we’re fine with that.”
In other words, if and when 4K, HDR, and the Netflix Recommended TV program become the gold standard of the television-watching experience, Netflix stands to benefit tremendously, sure. But so do dozens of companies and services that aren’t Netflix. And, most importantly, so do you.