Video quality not a consumer focus
Internet video remains a work in progress, yet we don't seem to mind
Last Updated: Wednesday, June 10, 2009 | 9:07 AM ET
By Paul Jay, CBC News
A video of Sesame Street's Subway song as seen on YouTube. Making files small enough to stream on the internet often involves using a lower resolution, compressing the data and transmitting the information at a lower bit rate. (YouTube)Television is not a daily staple for my infant daughter, but if she and I had to pick her favourite video now, at the age of 14 months, it would likely be the classic Sesame Street musical ode to the subway.
A rollicking and subversive take on mass transit, it includes enough edgy humour for adults — as one woman sings "You could lose your purse, or you might lose something worse, on the subway!" — and singing puppets, which my daughter seems to enjoy, if her squeal of delight and clapping is any indication.
In contrast, the Baby Einstein DVDs in our home do little more than pacify her. She stares at the hand puppets but says little and then eventually scoots off to find a remote control, or a sock.
That we enjoy the classic Sesame Street is not surprising, but what is worth noting is that the video, which we discovered on YouTube, is of horrendous quality. It's blurry, the sound is terrible, and I'm not sure it's entirely clear to my daughter that these are, indeed, puppets. In terms of picture quality, it's got nothing on the Baby Einstein videos.
On the internet, though, this rarely seems to matter.
Two weeks ago, a 19-year-old Australian woman named Clare Werbeloff became the latest YouTube minor celebrity for her vivid, offensive — and, as it turned out, entirely fictitious — retelling of a shooting she claimed to have witnessed. The video, grainy to begin with before making the awkward transition to YouTube, still managed to be viewed over 500,000 times and gave rise to a new catch phrase: "Chk, chk, boom" — her "re-enactment" of the trigger-pulling event.
The Chk Chk Boom Girl video now stands alongside a long list of poorly shot, fuzzy short-form videos to go viral to the internet, joining Star Wars Kid, Numa Numa Guy and the Paris Hilton sex video in the list of things you've probably seen but would never watch on a full-screen television. Yet for years, the media and technology companies have been telling consumers what they really want is the best sound, the best video and the most life-like entertainment experience.
Why, then, does a website like YouTube attract hundreds of millions of viewers a day? Why do people put up with wallet-sized displays; the so-called visual and aural "artifacts" caused during compression of video to smaller files; or the lagging action as a result of slow-moving internet connections?
Three words come to mind: here, now and, of course, free.
Quality is 'good enough'
"Convenience — and price — trumps all," said Michael Masnick, a U.S.-based new media consultant who follows digital trends on the blog Techdirt. Masnick believes people want better-quality video on the internet and on their phones, but it's not what drives people to consume one product over another.
"It's really the convenience issue at play," he said. "That said, for many applications, the quality is 'good enough.' That doesn't mean people wouldn't like better-quality video but that if it's not convenient, they can live with the lower quality."
Gary Brolsma's Numa Numa Dance, a video recording of his animated lip-synching to an obscure pop song, has been viewed on YouTube over 29 million times. Recorded in 2004 using a webcam, it has both a restricted frame and poor resolution. (YouTube)It's a familiar tune to Paul Théberge, an associate professor at Carleton University, who has been following the impact technology and the internet has had on music. Just as Flash video on YouTube undercut traditional broadcasting distribution, so, too, did the MP3 format change the music industry a decade ago, said Théberge, who holds a Canada Research Chair in technological mediations of culture.
Because of the compression technology used to make MP3s manageable to download, they suffer in sound quality compared to the best digital recordings. But that didn't prevent online file sharing and the rise of portable MP3 players from taking off. On the flip side, sales of CDs and DVDs plummeted in the last decade, particularly as peer-to-peer file sharing brought the cost of music down to as low as zero, provided one was willing to skirt copyright laws.
Anytime, anywhere video
And what happened then wasn't so different from the revolution that started 30 years ago when audio tapes arrived on the scene, said Théberge.
"At some level, it's the same old story," he said. "Audio tapes, VHS, MP3s, YouTube, all of these technologies allowed people to watch or listen in different contexts, either physically or temporally. You could consume the media anywhere and anytime, and that's what consumers want. People have shown with their consumption of media in these formats that they are willing to put up with a little degradation."
As one commenter on CBCNews.ca wrote in response to a story on YouTube: "Even though the picture quality is crap and the screen is tiny, I prefer youtube over regular television because I don't have to watch ads and I can browse and watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it ... Control over content wins every time."
Which is not to say that people prefer bad-quality video but rather that consumers have repeatedly demonstrated a preference for convenience — witness the success of the Sony Walkman, Apple's iPod, and video sharing websites like YouTube. Better quality has attracted the interest of consumers but only when it's also convenient. Compact discs were an improvement in sound quality over LPs, but just as importantly, they were portable.
Background 'sizzle' can make some music pop
Technology companies that forget this in their pursuit of the highest recording quality have paid the price. Quadraphonic sound was a bust in the 1970s. Beta video cassettes, incompatible with other players, became obsolete. HD DVD and Blu-Ray discs socked it out for years in the battle of high-definition video technology, with Blu-Ray scoring a hollow victory, as online video threatens to overtake it.
"Blu-Ray still isn't taking off, even after it won the format battle with HD DVD, because the vast majority of people, outside of a few audiophiles, are not that interested in the difference in quality between it and regular DVDs," said Théberge.
And in some special cases, people actually prefer less-than-perfect quality. Jonathan Berger, a composer and music professor at Stanford University, conducted a series of studies and found for certain kinds of music — particularly distortion-heavy rock and roll — people actually preferred MP3s to better-quality formats. As Berger told Nora Young on CBC Radio's Spark, the audio artifacts of compression, chaotic noise bursts he calls "sizzle," actually enhance cymbal hits and distortion guitars.
The results don't surprise Théberge, as rock music, particularly punk rock and heavy metal, has always maintained a preference for a raw, live sound where noise has an aesthetic value and sounding "too polished" can be the kiss of death with fans.
Video not always best in HD
In the realm of video, however, there are fewer analogues, though some exist, said David Purdy, vice-president and general manager of television services at Rogers Communications. Adult video, extreme sports and user-generated content are all examples of formats where viewers have repeatedly rejected high definition in favour of grainy, poorer-quality video, said Purdy. (Adult actress and director Stormy Daniels summed up her industry's issues with HD best in an interview with the New York Times in 2007: "The biggest problem is razor burn," she said. "I'm not 100 per cent sure why anyone would want to see their porn in HD.")
But in general, people who follow the online video world say better-quality video is still an end goal for most users, particularly for long-form content, such as full television episodes, movies or sporting events. Even YouTube has moved toward better-quality video, in part in response to new competition from sites such as Hulu and Vimeo.
An HD-DVD video disc of 'The Bourne Supremacy,' alongside a Blu-ray disc of 'Superman Returns.' The two competing formats both tried to capture the high-definition disc market, but it was industry, and not consumers, that ultimately crowned Blu-Ray the winner, as adoption was slow. (Reed Saxon/ Associated Press)The Google-owned leader in online video has recently added content in high-definition resolution, although HD means different things depending on the bit rate one is able to view the video at. (See sidebar.) YouTube senior product manager Shiva Rajamaran says as bandwidth on broadband internet connections improves, people's expectations of high-quality video will naturally become greater.
Long hours watching short clips
"Better-video quality tends to be better, no matter the length or kind of content," said Rajamaran. "Does it matter for brief entertainment or breaking news? Maybe not, but if you are going to be spending 20 minutes or more leaning back watching a full TV episode, it should be watchable."
While this might be true, it's also true that one of YouTube's and the internet's enduring traits is its ability to suck a viewer in to watching not just one two-minute video but hours and hours of bad video in one sitting.
"It's abundantly clear the first time you go online that you can spend days and nights watching what's out there," said Théberge. "No megastore can stock that kind of material."
It's the combination of ease of use and interconnectivity — the ability to link from one video to the next — which might explain the power of online video, regardless of its quality. Consider my Sesame Street experience. For months, my daughter and I would come back to the YouTube video — likely posted without permission — and it wasn't long before I was clicking on It's Not Easy Being Green and C is for Cookie, each one only a search term away from popping on the screen. It wasn't until recently that it finally occurred to me that a better-quality version of the video was available on the Sesame Street website.
It was still not TV quality, but it was better. We watched it together, this time in full-screen format. At first, my daughter was unsure what she was watching, but then she reacted with a smile and yelp, a measure of joy equal to her previous viewing. No more, no less. "C" is for convenient, and I guess that's good enough for her.
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