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Reviews Tech Takes

Netflix vs Lovefilm Instant: my impressions on streaming services in the UK

I am a cord cutter. I live in a house of other cord cutters. By that, I mean that we don’t own a television in our house, instead opting to watch all our video content on our computers or portable devices. The obvious advantage of this is that none of us need to pay for a TV license. While I haven’t been able to find any market research to back this up, anecdotal evidence that I know suggests to me that a sizeable number of students are like me in that they consume a majority of their video content streaming rather than on television.

The UK is different from the US television market in that a lot of the original TV content produced here is made available online quickly. There’s BBC iPlayer, Channel 4’s 4oD, and ITV Player – from the top three British broadcasters – that make their content available for free-of-cost (without a subscription or a TV license). The exception is Sky, which uses exclusivity of its content as a unique selling point for its own services.

What remains then, for the viewing needs of cord cutters in the UK is a) streaming movies b) on-demand playback of older content no longer active on the broadcasters’ own services. This is the gap that online streaming services such as Netflix or Lovefilm Instant fill in. Now, I could easily pirate the content but I these days I try to do the right thing. I buy all my books from the Kindle store rather than pirating PDFs. I subscribe to Spotify‘s premium service. I genuinely believe that content creators deserve to be compensated for their work. (Reading Paul Carr and Monday Note has convinced me that digital content needs to be paid for to create sustainable businesses which will continue to amuse and entertain us.)

So even with films and television, I want to get my content from legal sources rather than pirating them. There simply isn’t any excuse when the price for such services is so affordable: £5-6 a month is something that can comfortably fit into any student’s budget. Although I’ve been a subscriber to Spotify’s premium service for years, it’s only recently that streaming video services have launched in the UK have become mature enough to use.

I only make an exception when there’s no legal avenue at all to obtain something I’d happily pay for; that’s when I pirate. I totally understand why they don’t make it available because at the moment, they don’t want to cannibalize their existing business. Even making it available on a paid basis gives an incentive for people to cancel their satellite / cable subscription, and that revenue it far to worthy for them right now to risk it to online services which is a more price sensitive market and won’t accept higher prices. (Read this Fast Company piece on the struggle Hulu is facing in the US along these lines.)

What’s good for the customer is that most streaming service companies offer month-long or longer free trials that give you a fair amount of time to test how good their service is. This is exactly what I did. Here are my thoughts on the ones I tried out.

Lovefilm Instant

Lovefilm Instant (£4.99 / month) is Amazon’s play in streaming services in the UK. (In the US, this is branded as Amazon Instant Video.) I tried out a 45-day free trial of Lovefilm from a voucher I got along with an Amazon purchase.

My first impression of the service was that it’s a confusing mess. DVD / Blu-Ray titles are mixed in with streaming titles. The ‘Instant’ bit essentially lives on a section of the main Lovefilm site. Discovery is primarily done through ‘lists’ created within Lovefilm according to genre and lists created by users such as ‘Best of Lovefilm’ or ‘Staff picks’. This feels odd. I remember a time, many months ago, when Lovefilm also used to make films available for a payment and some included within the subscription package, so the whole ‘With Package’ section these days – when it no longer offers films on payment – feels like they tried to stuff the current titles into the old interface.

The search function does not have autocomplete. You’re flying blind as to what’s available and what’s not – or if you don’t know how to correctly spell a film title or actor / director name. The hangover of the legacy business of renting DVDs becomes quite apparent whenever you search for a title: results thrown up show a mix of DVDs as well as streaming titles. If I’m a streaming-only customer, why make things more complicated by showing me results that I cannot possibly access on my subscription plan? Perhaps this is a ploy at upselling you to their costlier plans, but for someone like me who doesn’t even have a DVD drive, this is completely pointless. While it’s possible to filter the search results according to ‘lists’ again to show only Lovefilm Instant titles, my point is a user shouldn’t have to do this extra step themselves.

Okay, so let’s say you don’t have a particular film in mind and just want to browse titles they have according to genre. So I clicked on a list, and to bring some sanity into sifting through the results, choose the option to order results according to ‘Member rating’. Here’s the problem with that: the ‘ordered’ results have no fucking relation whatsoever to the member ratings. Note how in the above screenshot the ratings go from 3 stars to 2 to 2.5 to 3 to 4. It simply doesn’t do what it does on the tin.

Search / content discovery UX is broken really badly for TV shows. Say that I search for ‘Lost’ (don’t judge me), the results are presented as individual episodes. Assuming that the show I wanted was ‘Lost On An Island’ (whatever, just roll with the example), that would mean instead of having a list of episodes on a single page for a TV show or season, I needed to click through dozens of pages of search results to find the one I want in case there are TV show titles with common words in their titles. To top this off, Lovefilm offers three criteria to sort results: ‘relevance’, member rating, date added. None of this is a particularly effective way of ordering results or a browsing interface for a TV show, where the best way is to provide a sequential list of episodes according to season. Instead (as you can see in the screenshot above), episodes according to ‘relevance’ are ordered completely randomly.

Once you find a film / TV show  you want to watch, you click through to its details page which lists a synopsis along with other related data pulled from IMDb. Clicking ‘watch now’ (sorry, the screenshot was taken after my subscription ended) starts playing the film…in that tiny embedded player window. It doesn’t look visually pleasing, and you’d most definitely need to switch to fullscreen viewing mode. The idea behind it probably is that most people would do that anyway. However, at first look, the player interface doesn’t look aesthetic.

I had trouble with the playback too. Despite having a 100 mbps broadband connection which never gives me issues, playback kept stalling and giving me ‘Content not available offline’ error messages randomly throughout my 45-day trial period. The only solution for this seemed to be to exit fullscreen mode, reload the page – at which point the player would prompt me to continue watching from where I had left – and then start playing back a couple of dozen seconds before the point playback stalled. I don’t know what the cause behind this could be.

What I found most disappointing was that Lovefilm Instant doesn’t make the process of figuring out ‘what to watch next’ easy. This really shouldn’t be that hard since Amazon already owns the best movies database on the planet – IMDb – and if it tried it could easily throw recommendations according to titles watched or rated previously by a user. Instead, it makes you browse through endless lists of various descriptions and even at that makes usage difficult by non-functional sorting. There’s no way of linking your Lovefilm account to your IMDb account (although there is an option to link Amazon and Lovefilm accounts). I cannot fathom how they can let this opportunity pass.

Legacy business hangover rears its head again when you try to browse titles according to ‘related’ content. Browsing to that tab shows titles available on DVD mixed with those available for streaming.

And here comes the subjective part: Lovefilm’s streaming library is utter shit. Its library seems to mostly consist of B-grade / C-grade films from the 90s with very few new film releases or TV shows. Perhaps it’s just a case of ‘watchable’ content being hard to discover due to the problems I mentioned above. Lovefilm is clearly trying because even within the 45-day window I tried the service, I saw new titles getting added. When it comes to TV shows, it hardly has anything that is not already available elsewhere such as YouTube or Channel 4’s 40D.

Anyway, when the time came to take a decision on whether I want to renew my subscription to become a paying customer, I simply didn’t feel the content library was rich enough or the discovery UX intuitive enough to be worth paying for. Obviously, issues with playback not working properly was a factor. Many of the videos were only available in standard-definition, which is baffling in this age when so much content is available in HD. Another factor was that Lovefilm does not (yet) offer any way to stream content to mobile devices; its Android app only allows you to add DVDs to your rental queue.

Lovefilm Instant feels almost like an afterthought to its core DVD rental business. It’s a shame that it cannot give good recommendations either, since with Amazon’s surprisingly accurate shopping recommendations and IMDb’s rating database, it should have enough data to go on which other players don’t have.

Netflix

Once my Lovefilm trial expired, I signed up for Netflix (£5.99 / month) – and so far I’m loving it. (I didn’t get a free trial because I’d previously signed up for a 30-day trial without using it.) Netflix starts you off with a quick questionnaire on preferred movie genres to personalise recommendations. The contrast with Lovefilm’s UI is stark as Netflix’s user interface is inherently more visual. Text is non-existent, making the user-interface more aesthetically pleasing than Lovefilm’s rigidly-structured pages. The whole user experience is centred around serendipity and discovery. Every time you visit Netflix, it presents a different set of thumbnails, making discovering newer titles or titles you may not have heard of incredibly simple.

More information on each title is presented using hovercards. What I like about this is that Netflix uses the initial questionnaire in addition to ratings you make on Netflix as you watch more titles to make a ‘best guess’ for a title’s rating in the eyes of each user. These personalised recommendations help you make snap decisions on whether you want to watch a title or not: if you’re in the mood to watch a film that you would definitely like, you’re likelier to choose titles with higher guessed ratings; or if you’re in the mood to experiment, then you might even consider titles with lower guessed ratings.

One of the things that Netflix’s has nailed really well is recommendations. In addition to a ‘browse’ feature that allow you to browse according to category, it also shows recommendations according to categories generated on-the-fly based on your ratings / preferences history. These fluid categories help you quickly discover films similar in tone to ones that you already like. Brilliant!

Netflix also nails ‘social’ recommendations. You can link your Facebook account to Netflix, and for your friends on the service who have done the same, it can show you films and TV shows that they have seen. The inherent idea behind this of course is that you’d be interested in watching films your friends watch, which is not a bad assumption to make because at any time for the ‘social’ recommendations you can rate a title as ‘Not interested’.

And the player UI is beautiful. Each title starts playing in a full browser-window sized player. It also starts playing content automatically and silently upgrades to HD quality once enough data has been buffered. What I particularly like about the player UX with respect to TV shows is that it automatically queues the next episode in the series after you’ve finished watching one. You can either sit back and let it continue, or use the countdown period to browse back to the main library interface. Netflix understands how episodes within a TV show are related by season, and automatic queueing makes for a great ‘leanback’, hands-free experience.

The reason why I singled out the lack of autocomplete as a UX deficiency in Lovefilm is that autocomplete – like Netflix does it – let’s you know right away whether a title you want is available or not. In case a title doesn’t show up while I’m typing, I know that right away without having to navigate away to search results page.

Netflix also offers streaming on tablets and mobile phones through its Android / iOS / Windows Phone apps. The UI is very similar to what’s offered on the desktop – so no need to figure out anything new. Hovercards are replaced using an ‘i’ information icon that pops up with the same information. Streaming content – both on desktop and mobile – just works, without any playback hiccups.

There is one thing that I felt Netflix got wrong though. I signed up for my Netflix account using Facebook Connect, and thus I never needed to set up a password when accessing it on my laptop. When I opened the mobile app though, I was frustrated to find that there’s no way to sign in without providing a password. I had to ask for a password reset on my account and then set up a password, just so that I could use my Netflix account from its mobile app. I don’t understand this omission, because there are other mobile apps which happily allow you to sign in using Facebook Connect.

Overall, I’m incredibly happy with Netflix and I think I will stay on as a customer. The content library is rich with a selection of foreign films, new releases, indie films, as well as top-notch American and British TV shows such as Dexter, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, The Inbetweeners, et al. There are sometimes cases where a title I’d find on Lovefilm Instant isn’t available but in general, Netflix UK seems to have a far broader selection of titles than any of its competition.

YouTube Rentals / Google Play

I mention YouTube Rentals / Google Play because Google markets this heavily on the Google Play Store. Unlike Lovefilm or Netflix, Google does not offer a fixed subscription that allows you access to a library. You need to buy each film separately, and then have 48 hours to watch it. Playback quality is good, as you’d expect from any standard HD video on YouTube. Content selection seems to be about the same as Netflix (sometimes better), minus the TV shows. It’s just not for me though, because buying access to each title at £2.49-3.49 a pop is way too expensive for me. Prices aren’t too out of line compared to Apple iTunes offerings though. I mention this only for the sake of completeness – I’d take an all-you-can-eat subscription any day over a piecemeal model.

Conclusion

Streaming services have been late to the party in the UK compared to the US, but if you are thinking of signing up for one now is a better time than ever with offerings being a lot more mature than they were when the services debuted. Subscription package costs are quite reasonable too for the content offered. I’d recommend that you sign up for trials on each service and see which one gives the best fit for your viewing tastes: you might find that either Lovefilm or Netflix is a better fit for what you like to watch.

I also haven’t tried NowTV – Sky’s new online streaming service. It’s significantly more expensive at £15 / month, but it also has a much larger library due to Sky’s weight in the general TV market. I may give it a go after a couple of months in case I find myself running out of stuff to watch on Netflix.

A cautionary note for Linux users: none of these services will work for you. Lovefilm and Netflix both require Silverlight player, to enforce DRM restrictions; and YouTube for some reason doesn’t allow playback for film rentals on Linux either (probably due to DRM reasons again) even though its standard player is Flash-based.

I think the big gap at the moment is in how broad and deep TV show libraries are on streaming services. Hulu still hasn’t launched in the UK, despite noises being made about it back since 2009. What I found for all the three streaming service here is that the content is either something already available for free from the channel on which they air, or, when available, restricted in the number of seasons that are available. That, however, is a broader industry issue – and I hope TV networks catch on to that fact that if they don’t make content available legally, people will simply get it when they want through illegal means. Movies also have the same ‘release window’ problem, but it’s much more acute with TV shows because streaming services usually catch up with many seasons later whereas with many films I’m happy to wait until the time they become available. (The films I really want to watch, I watch in the cinema.)

I think what I like best about streaming video – Netflix in particular – is that it makes finding new stuff to watch so effortless. I don’t need to go hunting for links on illegal streaming sites or worry about what quality the video will be. I like the simplicity and I want content creators to be compensated for their work. I hope that this march towards a future of on-demand content does not get bogged down with exclusive deals which effectively silo different content across multiple services.

N.B. I realise that it’s hard to objectively call Lovefilm’s UX bad without further data. Craigslist, for instance, stands out as an example of website design that doesn’t turn heads but clearly works for them. The only measure that can really speak definitively is data from split testing of design / functionality, or revenues. Here again, the problem is that Lovefilm may have higher revenue due to its volumes in the DVD retail business, so any comparison would need to be done on revenue purely for its streaming business versus Netflix’s. And that data is not easily available. Perhaps Lovefilm has found their design does work them, due to familiarity in the eyes of its users versus Netflix users who may be ‘savvier’ (again, a question that cannot be answered without knowing demographics). My intention in writing this blog post was to present what I felt about the design and service of the two contenders – in the hope that some people find it useful.

Categories
On A Whim

Yabba dabba dead

A Collegehumor take on the Flintstones opening theme. Reminds me of childhood – all those Hanna-Barbera toons that I used to watch on the Cartoon Network.

Categories
Personal

An idiot abroad examines his tiny tendrils of guilt

On most days, I’d reserve these thoughts for my private blog. I have been vacillating since New Year’s Eve whether to publish this publicly or not. Maybe you’ll understand why as you read on. This is a disjointed, admittedly incoherent account of my state of emotions at the close of 2010. Maybe it’ll mean something, to at least a few who read this.

****

My stay outside India came to define 2010 for me. Sifting through my blog archives, I would say it is a continuation of what I mentioned towards the end of last year – but saying that would be undermining, in a way, what I have learned in 2010.

My decision to go to Singapore for a study exchange had a greater impact than I ever signed up for. The first half of 2010 – the second half of my first year at University of Surrey – had moments I am going to cherish throughout my life. I’m not saying this for the sake of saying it. This is not like those misused cases of using the word ‘literally’. I made friends at Surrey who are the sort who stick around for life – and with whom you’d want to stick around for life.

And then, I gave it all up to go Singapore.

Mind you, I don’t regret that decision. It showed me the value of what I had. What I walked away from. Singapore is that milestone I will look back to, as the place that made me fundamentally rethink friendships and relationships in my life. While I have enjoyed my cultural experience and made good friends in Singapore too, it made me realize how it isn’t the same.

I was sad in 2009 that I wasn’t as frequently in touch with my Indian friends as I would have liked to. In 2010, I found myself out of touch with my Indian friends as well as the friends I made in my first year at Surrey. I have looked on with a certain despondency as friendships that mattered a lot to me get reduced to Facebook’s loose definition of a ‘friend’. I have had relationships strained as meaningful communication lost its hold, stretched by space and time displacement.

Sometimes, I wonder how different things would have been had I not made the choices that I did.

Sometimes, I wonder how things will turn out to be once I am back in the UK – or even India. When I meet my friends there again, maybe in 2011 or in 2012 when we’re back in university after placement year, I wonder whether things will be same.

****

…every being in the universe is tied to his birthplace by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your birthplace, these tendrils get stretched and distorted. This compares with an ancient Arcturan Proverb “However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Arcturan Mega-Camel.”

– Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

****

I realize for the past half-decade, I have behaved as a social nomad. Changing school, taking a gap year, going to university and then deciding to do a year abroad – at each stage I had memorable experiences, but I know realize every time I did so, I wanted more. Many a kid who had parents with transferable jobs might have faced the same, but then, you sort of grow up knowing your primary school friends will drift apart, you are with family, and even then the displacements are a few years apart. I, on the other hand, have become part of vastly differing social circles in a span of less than five years.

(Someone suggested I do this because I am an only child; that an only child of a parent fishes for independence and uniqueness. I thought…it’d be the other way round? I don’t know. Freud probably has written about this.)

I fear that this urge to immerse myself in a new environment has come to define my way of living now. I assume this is what happens once you’ve learned BASE jumping or freehand rock climbing. After a while, it becomes the only way you get excited about life. After a while, it becomes the only way you can dream.

****

Most of my friends in Singapore were exchange students; exchange students who usually stay for semester. I am not, I am one of the handful who chose to stay for the whole year. In addition to the obvious bonding among exchange students, I also made great Singaporean friends through my work at the TV station. All people who are excellent company to hang around with. Yet, the fleeting nature of our acquaintance came as a rude jolt to remind me at the end of the year that this really isn’t the same.

Singapore itself is diversely multi-ethnic; this is especially true of Nanyang Technological University. You’ll find native Singaporeans, Malays, Indians, Chinese, Indonesians, citizens of other neighbouring countries; then you have exchange students from every country imaginable – the UK, USA, practically every country of the European Union, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, China, Africa. And yet, despite all this diversity, there is no unity. I don’t know why, but everyone just defaults to staying in their comfort zone of hanging around with folks of the same background. Walk into any canteen, any library (we have seven), any lecture theatre – look up the composition of any group of students, and you will hardly ever find a mix of different ethnicities.

It isn’t for the lack of trying. My roommates in hostel – both exchange students from Scotland – mentioned how left-out they felt during lab sessions; their lab team consisted of Singaporeans who would reply in English when asked a question, but would default to Mandarin when conversing amongst themselves. I’m not singling out Singaporeans here because this is a behaviour I have seen repeated across the campus. When there’s a social gathering, you’ll only find Indians hanging around with Indians, Malays having a barbecue in the hostel lawns, and so on. This was a big change for me from Surrey; the composition of student population is very diverse there, still, people do not exclusively restrict their social circle to ‘their own kind’.

As the calendar flips to 2011, I find myself back to square one – (practically) with no friends. All my exchange friends are gone, most of my Singaporean are off on exchange themselves on exchange, and even among the Indian community there I am somewhat of an oddity. I don’t have the luxury of being a fresher, who are forced by circumstances to get together, and at the same time as year 2 or 3 student I find myself faced with peers who’ve already defined their friend circle.

****

For most people, year-in reviews are an opportunity to look back at treasured and defining moments of the year gone by. These usually are memorable days – for good or bad reasons – like parties, events, funerals, get-togethers, achievements, speeches…but every time I look back at a year, the defining moments are always conversations. Conversations, conversations, conversations.

Standing around the university mailroom trying to find the worst movie trailer ever.

Conversations over takeaway dinners ranging from life in the UK to gossip from part-time jobs.

Spending four hours on a roadside near the Esplanade waterfront, ignoring thirst and an increasing mobilization of an ant colony…because at the time, only that chat was what seemed to matter.

Staying awake till 4am in the library preparing for an exam, and discussing crazy stuff we did when we were children. (The winner was a friend who dressed up as Superman, almost jumped off his balcony, and made his babysitter have a nervous breakdown in the process.)

Turning up 15 minutes late to a meeting with my work manager for a meeting, trying to forget I hadn’t even brushed my teeth.

Talking to people you have never met in real life over Twitter – and yet, feeling that you know more about each other than people you’ve met in real life.

Discussing the ridiculousness of the behaviour of ghosts in Thai soaps and somehow ending with the conversation steered onto the topic of psychiatric care.

All those times on Skype and phone grasping on to every syllable. Pretending as if distance didn’t really matter. And at one time, finding it impressive that Skype added typewriter sound effects to their software.

Arguing about Catholic faith, traffic shaping by ISPs to prevent file-sharing, and whether the US was justified in going to war in Afghanistan in the same conversation thread…while waiting for a pizza delivery.

(For someone whom conversations define so much, I’m bad at the technicalities of it. I always misjudge conversational pauses, perpetually stepping over other people’s words; I am mortified every time it happens, and I panic and screw up even more.)

To every single person mentioned (you know who you are!) and not mentioned here (only because of lack of space!): I know I can be a difficult friend at the best of times. I am as narcissistic, shy, arrogant, introverted as people can get. I take a long time to understand and trust people, and then let them into my inner social circle. But once I do get to know you, you mean a lot to me. More than I possibly ever let on. Each and every single conversation in 2010 – and earlier and beyond – I can replay in  memory. Each and every single conversation is what makes the journey worthwhile.

****

They say travel broadens the mind. I think, however, that a friend I had a chat with recently put it the best: travel does broaden the mind, but only if you go in expecting it to be broadened. When you visit a country as a tourist or live abroad, it is deceptively easy to insulate yourself.

There was a TV series running for the past few months on Sky1 called An Idiot Abroad. The premise of the show is they send a British everyman Karl Pilkington around the globe to see the New Seven Wonders of World. It is a travel documentary like no other – because it doesn’t try to be a travel documentary. You don’t have an enthusiastic Lonely Planet traveller gung-ho about exploring new cultures. Instead, you have Pilkington, who thoroughly hates travelling and doesn’t bother much beyond his next lunch at a pub.

I realize that Karl Pilkington is a comedian / radio jockey by profession, and many of the situations in the show were specifically cooked up to cause his discomfort. But then…something changed. It isn’t scripted into the show nor is it ever explicitly announced, but as Pilkington progresses on his journey something is different. You can sense that he is a new man – not his cynical old self any more.

I plan to go backpacking in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam (and a few other countries, if I can) later this year. (I’ve ‘done’ Indonesia; want to go back there again though.) Somehow this came up during a conversation with an employee at our hostel office; I was nodding along, smiling politely to what he was saying – because I didn’t really understand what he was saying – when I realized he was talking about a relative whose leg got blown off by a landmine in Cambodia. Honestly, how do you react to situations like that?

These past few days I have been reading a book titled Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. It is an account told through diary entries of Andrew Thomson, Ken Cain, and Heidi Postlewait – a narrative that spanning from 1993 to 2003 – as they work for the UN in Cambodia, Mogadishu (Somalia), Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Liberia. (The title of the book and its tagline is an exploitative ploy by the publisher, I guess, but content isn’t.) It’s a coming-of-age story of three Westerners as they see the good work they can and can’t do, working in some of the most impoverished and conflict-stricken parts of the world. Rich vacationers paying off macoutes, just so that they can have a merry time on ‘pristine’ beaches. Stories of faces half-chopped apart by an axe and thrown into the sea, just for speaking out against a dictatorial government. It makes for grim reading…but every once in a while, they recount an incident that truly makes you believe in altruism amongst the human race.

I feel as if I am walking towards a precipice – a precipice that allows a view of a thousand epiphanies. All I can see on the horizon now is the edge of precipice, and a tantalising glimpse of the enlightenment that awaits.

****

When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.

– From Black Hawk Down

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I don’t have a new year resolution, merely a desire: to learn at least basic conversational Mandarin by the end of my stay in Singapore.

Wish you a happy new year, everyone. :)

Categories
On A Whim

History of canned laughter

In an interview, Ben Glenn II, a television historian talks about canned laughter. Fascinating read. I’d heard of the ‘Laff Box’, never read a comprehensive account of it.

How did canned laughter come about?

The concept actually goes back at least five hundred years. History tells us that there were audience “plants” in the crowds at Shakespearean performances in the 16th century. They spurred on audience reactions, including laughter and cheering—as well as jeers.

How about more recently?

Canned laughter was used to a certain degree in radio, but its first TV appearance was in 1950, on a rather obscure NBC situation comedy, The Hank McCune Show. Remarkably, there are a couple of clips from the show on YouTube.

(I’ve previously ranted about canned laughter in comedy shows.)

Categories
On A Whim

IPL, YouTube, and Cricket in UK

So, the Indian Premier League 2010 extravaganza is finally coming to an end tomorrow. Nothing really causes as much upheaval among the masses in India as cricket does. This year, it has resulted in a minister in the Indian government having to resign, income tax raids, and the head honcho of the IPL potentially getting sacked too. Over the past weeks, the amount of space Indian media devoted to this event has been staggering – as always.

Let’s take a few steps back, for the sake of my UK visitors. IPL is a Twenty20 cricket tournament held annually in India, run somewhat along the lines of EPL. Privately-owned teams consisting of players from most of the cricket playing nations are signed on to these teams and knockout type sporting event proceeds.

Why do I bother to explain this? Because I’ve realized in my stay here that nobody really gives a shit about cricket in UK. You see, cricket in UK is a bit like hockey in India, i.e., nobody really gives a shit because everyone is busy following a more popular sport (cricket in India, football in UK.) Here’s the typical demographic of sports fans in UK:

Any visitor of YouTube would at least heard of IPL though, thanks to the loud flashing ads. If you’ve been unlucky enough you’d even have been bombarded with this video-as-an-ad the moment you opened YouTube’s frontpage. Take a moment to see this video I’m talking about.

Jai Ho is a song that has captured a niche similar to that of All The Young Dudes in semi-urban Hollywood movie trailers. You know, ever have those days when you really wanted to make an ad that said ‘India’ but couldn’t figure out what to put as the soundtrack? Why, just use Jai Ho! Also, going by this video, IPL is the bastard child of a one-stand between cricket and dance reality shows.

I’m not a follower of cricket. Never bothered that much about IPL when I was in India. However, when you’re so many miles/mules away from home, nostalgia draws you towards clinging on to whatever you can get. Such as (sometimes) watching IPL matches being live streamed on YouTube.

"Dude, this catch was so awesome!" (Screenshot is of typical IPL webcast on YouTube)

For most normal videos, YouTube automatically adjusts video quality according to connection speed. Naturally, having oodles of bandwidth here I expected to get a high quality stream. What do I actually get? A rectangular box filled with pixellated mess whenever any sort of action is happening on-screen. You can vaguely make out that a colourful blob is moving from one end of the screen to another, but precisely what’s happening is unclear. High speed broadband isn’t that common in India, so a lower quality stream for slower connections is fine, but if you want to attract viewers overseas you need a decent, viewable broadcast!

YouTube has a lot to prove, since this is the first time it’s live streaming any sporting event – that too with an event on the scale of IPL (duration, money involved, audience, et al). You’d think that with so much riding on this, YouTube would hire competent editors to see the webcast goes smoothly. Unfortunately, ‘competent editors’ is one of other items on their budget that faced cutbacks. I mean, look at the video below.

Screenshot of IPL broadcast on YouTube showing incorrect aspect ratio
Funhouse mirrors ahoy!

What they’ve done is they’ve taken standard 4:3 aspect ratio video and squashed it into a widescreen 16:9 format. Listen r-tards, squashing the bejaysus out of a (pixellated) 4:3 video into widescreen doesn’t automatically make it better quality. Nobody at YouTube HQ seems to’ve bothered to notice and rectify this either.

So far, watching IPL on YouTube has been like watching six hours of a Pac-Man game video interspersed with obnoxious ads. Maybe switching the camera angle will help? I thought that this would show the same match from a different angle – that would indeed be neat, but instead it turns out to be a ‘fun feed’. Blinking arrows on the streaming page exhort you to view this ‘fun feed’. Intrigued, I clicked on a ‘fun feed’ video.

This is so much phun. You have to see this video!

From what I gather, these ‘fun feed’ videos are supposed to be a recap of ‘fun’ moments from a particular cricket match. Going through some of the videos at random, I’d say that if these are the best moments of the match, then I feel sorry for the viewers. What you get is a poor quality video: poor quality because it mostly consists crowds not doing the Mexican wave (or pretty much anything); poor quality in the technical sense because you can ratchet it all the way up to 720p HD on and still get the same blurry pixellated mess that you get at lower quality.

Screenshot of a fun feed video from IPL 2010 on YouTube
Those inhuman bastards. Look at what they've done to Mrs Pac-Man!
Cheerleader
Image by SJ Jagadeesh via Flickr

No Fake IPL Player this year to spice up the blogosphere, although a valiant stab at smartass commentary has been made by Eye Pee Yell. RSS shakhas across India would’ve their khaki shorts in a twist over the ‘degradation of Indian culture’ by bringing “booze and American-style cheerleaders” into the mix. Maybe next year we can have everyone drop their bats and fight it out gladiator-style with folding chairs. That will be a true DLF Maximum Citi Moment of Success that I’ll watch.

Enjoy the final of IPL 2010. Until next time, I leave you with this extremely gratuitous picture of a cheerleader.