Why stuff looks funny on Netflix

Recently the interwebs have been ablaze with outrage over the format of some videos seen on Netflix.  The site What Netflix Does kicked it off.  Kudos to the person behind for taking the time to make the site.  Many seemed to think that Netflix was manipulating the video for some unknown reason.

While the idea of a secret conspiracy is appealing, there’s nothing secret going on here.  As someone who’s spent a career in media companies and helped with the process of getting content to distribution partners, I can explain exactly what’s going on.
Here’s how the Internet thinks things work:
Media Company Staff #1:  The people in affiliate sales cut another deal with Netflix to show more of our stuff.
Media Company Staff #2:  Awesome.  Let’s make sure we provide the absolute best quality versions possible. Cost is no object! Those viewers at home deserve only the absolute best!
Media Company Staff #1:  I agree.  Let’s spend a lot of time and money getting this right.
How things actually work:
Media Company Staff #1:  The people in affiliate sales cut another deal with Netflix to show more of our stuff.
Media Company Staff #2:  Dammit! We are already overloaded with other deals and are understaffed. What do we have ready to go that doesn’t cost anything?
Media Company Staff #1:  Well, I think we have an up-scaled PAL version with pan & scan?  The audio is just stereo, but it’s ready to go.  Don’t cost nuthin’.
Media Company Staff #2: Not even HD? Well, the viewers won’t notice and we’re too busy to give a shit.  Ship it.
Yes, I know it sounds bad, but it’s very close to the truth.
The world of TV and film technology is full of subtle variations in aspect ratio, frame rate, color space, edits, and many other geeky ways.  To suit all the various traditional distributors of TV and film, studios end up with multiple versions.
Everyone has a different point of view on how best to display 2.35 or 1.78 ratio films on a 16×9 television screen.  Don’t forget that for YEARS studios made cropped ‘Full Screen’ versions of wide screen films on DVD because many consumers hated letter box versions.  Not everyone is an aspect ration perfectionist.  In addition to aspect ratios, there are different video edits, text languages, and caption & subtitle tracks to boot.  Literally hundreds of versions of each film.
Since traditional media deals are still so ridiculously profitable, the studios are happy to meet the whims of the traditional distributors.  Better yet, in these circles, there are even some standards that are industry-wide making the same versions usable by many.
In the wild west of digital media however, everyone is a delicate, unique snowflake and there are basically no standards.  No major digital media distributor has the same delivery specification.  Each has their own blend of metadata, graphics, and video standards.  This is a high pain in the ass.
So the media companies have built (or in many cases, rent) digital factories that you stick a digital master in on one end, turn the selector knob, push go, and out squirts the proper delivery package.
These digital factories aren’t cheap to run and the digital media deals are not nearly as lucrative as the traditional ones.  Billions vs. millions.
Making a new ‘digital master’ can be a very costly proposition.  Going from the highest resolution version in an uncompressed file or on a HDCAM SR tape is a nontrivial task.  Multiple layers of expensive eyes, quality controls, and other fun geekery costs a lot of money.  Spending a lot of money is not what the media studios want to do when it comes to fulfilling deals with digital distribution companies.  Billions vs. millions.
What this leads to is the poor souls responsible for fulfilling the deals & getting packages out the door choosing to use whatever digital master they have available, regardless of whether it’s the ‘best’ quality or not.  So if a traditional distribution deal led to the creation of a digital master, it will be used.  Even if it’s a 4×3 pan & scan version of a film or show that was made in 16×9.  I’m not saying this is right, it is simply the way it is.
Bringing this back to Netflix, you can see that they are at the mercy of the media companies as to the version of ‘digital master’ that they get.  Sure, Netflix could try to reject everything, but in reality this would slow everything down, and prevent films getting changed into the 100+ versions Netflix needs make them available to viewers at home.  ”Best get something online even if it’s not great, rather than not have it available.”
When you start comparing international versions, the problem is even more amplified as the language and country edits create even more variation and lack of a ‘one true standard version’.
Yes, it’s not how things should work.  Yes, you want as good as a version as possible.  But this is the reality of digital distribution today.
If you really want the best possible version, go buy the Blu-Ray.  Those versions are as good as it gets and have received by far, the most tender loving care of anything you can put in front of your eyeballs at home.  Anything that streams online is going to be a compromise.  Likely things will change in the future, but for now, don’t be surprised to see the kinds of things continue for a while.
The person behind What Netflix Does is right that there is a big issue, but the majority of blame doesn’t lie with Netflix, it lies firmly with the studios.
If you have questions, let me know. ;)