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Think Your Encoding Job is Tough? Every Netflix 'Watch Instantly' Video is Encoded over 100 Times

12.18.12 @ 9:47PM Tags : , , , ,

Netflix is undeniably a bargain for consumers. The variety of content it features is immense, even though instant viewing choices fluctuate somewhat frustratingly — but don’t expect the average consumer to be understanding about the rather ugly licensing problems that cause this. It’s hard to argue with the price, despite Netflix’s problems. The removal of its native social component, splitting DVD/streaming subscriptions, its sensory overload/option paralysis layout, and its lame payouts to creators are all issues to take with the service. That said, anyone who appreciates the engineering behind modern content delivery can respect Netflix’s ease of viewing — possible via multi-device integration, and, more vitally, the number of encodings each video must undergo for that famous ‘instant view’ ability.

Support for almost 1,000 devices is certainly a key facet of Netflix’s internet-based On Demand fluidity — that’s true “On Demand.” But what goes on in the background for each and every such device including your computer (and each and every piece of media), is really the lifeblood of what makes the Netflix engine tick. Netflix has recently shared some explanation of this, with props to Gigaom for their subsequent write-up.

It’s a fairly straightforward concept that video on YouTube, for instance, must be encoded for each of the resolution options available for your manual selection — but theoretically, only that many encodings are necessary. Netflix, on the other hand, simply can’t leave you waiting on the buffer to give you uninterupted viewing, a luxury YouTube may have, because viewers may be patient for the sake of guaranteed quality.

Netflix has to just work — and to do so, the service must almost instantaneously (the feature is called ‘Watch Intantly,’ after all) and automatically gauge things like latency and bandwidth of your connection, assumedly each time you demand a ‘play’ (if not more often). Then, without missing a beat, the service starts feeding whatever-quality version of the media in question your connection can take, and no higher, to work as seamlessly as changing a TV channel or the On Demand your cable provider brings you. Even with all this in mind, though, 120 discrete encodings is simply staggering — but Netflix wouldn’t implement specifications for this many separate versions of the same thing if it didn’t find doing so a necessity. Streamlining is the name of this game, and even with a trimming-the-fat mentality, quality control considerations are, reassuringly, governing such a workflow.

Furthermore — as Gigaom also highlights — content creators who can provide media optimized to this model are primed to make out with more cash at the end of a deal:

Frequently Netflix finds itself looking for opportunities to grow its streaming catalogs quickly with budget dollars that have not yet been allocated. Increasingly the Netflix deal teams are considering the effectiveness of a content owner’s delivery abilities when making those spending decisions. Simply put, content owners who can deliver quickly and without error are getting more licensing revenue from Netflix.

Does this information surprise you? Thinking about it, would you expect a service like Netflix to use quite this many encodings — or perhaps even more? Do you think this is a strong gesture for a balance between quality and ‘watch it now’ considerations?

Link: Complexity In The Digital Supply Chain — Netflix Tech Blog

[via Gigaom]


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  • Great article, Dave!

  • As someone who encodes live video on a daily basis, I have indeed always been curious as to just how many copies Netflix had encoded of its content. Its main base content, to my understanding, has always been VC-1 for its Silverlight player, but then one must consider the PS3′s unique ability (or rather, privilege) to get 1080p content from Netflix, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s delivered in AVC, purely on the basis of the PS3′s more flexible AVC decoder.

    The implication in Netflix’s content agreements seems to be that if you can provide your content in as many formats as possible, you can cut costs from Netflix’s encoding services. I’m genuinely intrigued as to what their encoding specs are, simply from the perspective of someone who is always delivering multiple video formats…

  • I work for an encoding house that encodes media from a few major studios and delivers the content to several streaming VOD services; one of whom is Netflix.

    Even I didn’t know the number of encodes Netflix requires.

    In case anyone is wondering, it works like this:
    We get an order from a studio who works out a deal with a VOD provider. We ingest their media (whether it be from HDCAM-SR tape, Digibeta, or .mov file on a hard drive, etc), capture it at ProRes 422 (HQ), it goes through one and sometimes two quality control checks (i.e. two different people watch the same movie and check for errors), then it goes to the fix department to repair any issues found during QC, on to Conformance to sync up the CC file and/or add any 5.1 audio or subtitles that may have been missing, on to Encoding should the file need to be converted to another format (usually it does, to several different formats), then to Packaging who prepare the metadata (all the info on the VOD provider’s site about the film: actors, director, synopsis, run time, release date, etc), then to a final Audit team who checks all the previous departments’ work.
    All of the work is then itemized by Accounting and billed for accordingly.

    Yikes! A very complicated process when I step back and look at it.

  • DIYFilmSchool on 12.19.12 @ 10:28AM

    I don’t use Netflix; never really have, but I have done quite a bit of encoding for various projects and to hear that this has to be done over 1000 times to meet market demand and device standards, I have pity and compassion for the people tending to such a thing.

    Hopefully they have a batch system in place per format; that would make things a little less labor-intensive. Of course, with the technical knowledge one would have to have for a gig like this, I can’t imagine someone wouldn’t have brought that up at the company.

  • While I appreciate the work that goes into producing live-streaming content, as the end consumer, it is irrelevant to me how many encodings or processes go into the final streamed movie or TV episode. Ironically, this little animation about all the steps it takes to get to streamed content, and all the “quality control” that goes on just makes me wonder why so much of Netflix’ content looks so unbelievably awful when I’m streaming through a cable connection on a hi-def TV, much of it virtually unwatchable.

  • anyone got any idea how PPTV does it ? – their steaming is byfar the best and totally instant streaming to my ipad. it’s a Chinese movie streaming program ( mostly Chinese movies and Chinese tv ) streaming service for free but the quality is totally off the charts – even when viewed on the big flat screen on the wall – it still holds up very nicely.. and virtually no buffering at all. like none… I’d love to know more bout how they do it. nothing on any platform come even close to it. the app is only in Chinese which I cannot read though :( only bumma thing about it.

    Can you guys in other countries find that app on your itunes stores?