More households are streaming than ever before, thanks to the convenience, quality, and nearly unlimited variety of programming offered. With that convenience, though, comes a multitude of mostly unnecessary frustrations for tech-savvy home theater enthusiasts.
A Crash Course on the History of Streaming
When Netflix began its streaming service in 2007, it consisted of mostly independent movies that no one had heard of and a small selection of older television shows, with the majority of that content in standard definition. Their service was, at first, only available on XBOX gaming consoles and through computer web browsers, and later expanded to Sony’s Playstation 3 console, internet-connected Blu-ray players, smart TVs, as well as Roku and Apple streaming devices. Netflix’s main competitors were Hulu (a joint venture of NBC, ABC, and FOX broadcast networks offering their prime time lineups the following day), Apple’s iTunes movie and TV on-demand rental and purchase service, Amazon Instant Video (similar to iTunes, a precursor to what we now know as Prime Video), and on-demand movie startup Vudu. As internet speeds began to improve around the country and become more affordable, many services began offering their content in high definition, first in 720p and 1080p soon thereafter, and adding either Dolby Digital or DTS audio with 5.1 surround. Content increased on Netflix when they signed deals with pay television services STARZ (giving them access to movies from Disney and Sony) and EPIX (movies from Lionsgate, MGM, and Paramount), as well as direct deals with Universal, Warner Bros, etc. Nearly every device capable of streaming video came with apps for Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon’s streaming service that would eventually evolve into Prime Video. Roku’s streaming devices began to become more affordable to compete against smart TVs and Blu-ray players, and Amazon entered the video hardware sector with their HD-capable Fire Stick streaming device.
In 2011, UltraViolet was launched with support from Warner Bros, Universal, Sony Pictures, Fox, Paramount, and Lionsgate, with Warner-owned Flixster as the main online streaming partner offering access to UV titles. Flixster was later joined by Walmart’s Vudu, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Best Buy’s CinemaNow, M-Go (now FandangoNow), Kaleidescape, and the short-lived Target Ticket. UV also allowed users to share their library with up to five friends on Vudu. Sony also launched their own 4K video streaming service, ULTRA 4K, as a way to make 4K UHD content available to consumers who purchased Sony 4K UHD televisions and was an UltraViolet partner. In 2014, Disney launched Disney Movies Anywhere, a similar digital locker service to UV, for its library of movies, allowing users access to their digital Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm libraries across multiple retail platforms such as iTunes, Vudu, Google Play Movies, and Amazon’s Prime Video. Four years later, the service was rebranded as simply Movies Anywhere, with additional studio support including Universal, Sony, Warner Bros, and Fox, and would later add retailer partners FandangoNow, Microsoft Movies & TV, Verizon Fios, and Comcast Xfinity. As many UltraViolet partner studios and retailers eventually decided to be Movies Anywhere exclusive (Universal, Fox, and FandangoNow), UltraViolet threw in the towel and closed up shop on July 31, 2019.
Not all content is the same across all services…
Prior to the launch of UHD displays and playback devices, streaming was, for the most part, fairly even in terms of quality across all services. Nearly all devices offered the same streaming services with the same features. Netflix, Vudu, Google Play Movies, FandangoNow (formerly M-Go), and Prime Video offered up to 1080p HD video and up to 5.1 Dolby Digital audio on nearly every device their services were available on. Hulu was primarily HD video and stereo audio. Apple offered movies and TV shows on through iTunes on their Apple TV devices in up to 1080p HD video and up to 5.1 surround.
The same is not true regarding content across streaming services, even during the “early” days. Before we dive into that, let us first get a few definitions out of the way regarding the different types of streaming services.
VOD refers to Video On Demand, services like Vudu, FandangoNow, iTunes (aka Apple TV), and Google Play Movies that primarily offer movies or TV shows for consumers to either purchase or rent.
SVOD stands for Subscription Video On Demand, services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HOB Max, CBS All Access, and Apple TV+ that offer a buffet of TV shows, movies, and original content available to stream at no additional cost above and beyond their monthly subscription fee.
And then there are the Hybrid VOD services such as Amazon’s Prime Video that tries to be the best of both worlds, offering up movies and TV shows to rent or purchase, plus a rotating library of content that can be viewed at no additional cost to their monthly/annual subscription fee.
Probably the biggest issue with how content appears across streaming services, especially VOD, is the aspect ratio that movies are presented in. For decades, most of us have become accustomed to movies being cropped on TV, whether it was a network broadcast (NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX), a basic cable channel (TNT, TBS, USA, F/X), or a pay channel (HBO, Showtime), and for the sake of this article, I am going to throw in SVOD services as well. For the most part, VOD services do tend to present movies in their correct and intended aspect ratio. When mistakes occur, though, they tend to remain that way forever, with the service blaming the studio (“that is what the studio sent us”) and the studio blaming the service (“that is what the service ordered”). Vudu was probably the biggest offender during these early days, although nearly every service has had this issue at some point on some movie.
Mel Brooks’ classic western spoof, Blazing Saddles, is one such blunder in my Vudu library, which I purchased in HDX on the service in 2016. On Vudu, the movie is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo with the opening title sequence in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio, then zooms in to a full-screen 1.78:1 for the remainder of the movie. Yet, on Movies Anywhere, iTunes/Apple TV, and Prime Video the movie is presented in its intended aspect ratio and 5.1 audio, while both FandangoNow and Google Play Movies present the movie in stereo but in the 2.35:1 ratio. Vudu is not the only provider that has this problem. Many users here on Home Theater Forum have complained about seeing movies in the wrong aspect ratio in iTunes and other providers, and if you catch it early enough, most providers will offer a refund as long as it is within 24 hours and you have not watched the movie to its conclusion. Fixing the issue, though, is another matter, and rarely if ever gets resolved. The only movie I am aware of that Vudu corrected was The Lego Movie, but there was a large public outcry over the aspect ratio (identical issue as Blazing Saddles) that occurred within days after its release that Vudu was quick to get it corrected. Unfortunately, that was the exception rather than the rule.
A more common issue these days is whether or not you receive your movie in the resolution you purchased (UHD vs HD) and whether or not that service will offer that title in Dolby Atmos. The recent release of Lawrence of Arabia in UHD is a perfect example. Vudu has the film in its best possible quality – UHD with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos audio. Apple TV/iTunes offers the movie in UHD with HDR10 and Dolby Vision while Movies Anywhere only offers UHD with HDR10, but only 5.1 audio despite the fact that Dolby Atmos is supported on the Apple TV and Movies Anywhere apps on both Apple TV and Roku devices. Prime Video and FandangoNow offer the film in UHD with HDR in Dolby Digital+ 5.1 audio, while Google Play Movies offers it in UHD with HDR but only stereo audio.
V For Vendetta is another example, with only Vudu and Apple TV/iTunes offering the film in UHD with HDR10/DV and Dolby Atmos, while Movies Anywhere, FandangoNow, and Google Play have UHD with HDR10 and only Dolby Digital+ 5.1 audio, with Amazon Prime Video offering 1080p HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
Now, granted, part of the issue is that not all services have contracts with studios to offer their films in 4K UHD, and Prime Video is one of those services, although UHD titles from Warner Bros., Universal, and Fox have been trickling out in the last couple of months as Amazon has apparently finally signed deals with these studios, but they have been hit or miss. Scoob! gets upgraded to 4K on Prime Video, but Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth Saga only merits HD? Dolby Atmos seems to be hit or miss on Warner and Sony titles on Movies Anywhere, too.
Not all SVOD services are the same across various devices
As I reported in my article Why One Streaming Device May Not Be Enough, streaming services do not behave in the same way on each device. While some services have improved on some devices since I posted that article, with the addition of several new services since then, we still have quite a ways to go.
Netflix – Nothing much has changed here. Netflix offers most of its original content in 4K HDR10/Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, but most Fire TV and Roku devices still are not capable of Dolby Atmos playback on Netflix. The exceptions are the Fire TV Cube and the 2020 model of the Roku Ultra. The reason for the lack of Dolby Atmos on most streaming devices, even those that are capable of streaming other services in Dolby Atmos, is that Netflix requires that the streaming device have a Dolby MAT processor that can decode the audio stream and send it with the Atmos metadata to your home theater receiver or soundbar. At least that is what I have theorized, since my requests to Netflix Support have gone mostly unanswered, other than a simple “your device is not supported” response.
Hulu – It is hard to believe that in 2020, a major streaming service like Hulu is still streaming in stereo audio on Apple TV devices, the only major device in which Hulu is not in 5.1 (despite the capability of streaming Hulu’s original content in 4K). Both Amazon and Roku support Hulu with 5.1 audio – boggles the mind.
CBS All Access – Here is yet another streaming service that has home theater enthusiasts scratching their head. While the service has finally added 5.1 audio for most of its content on Roku devices (in both Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital+), programming still defaults to stereo, forcing users to press the options button on their Roku remote and select either Dolby Digital or DD+ from the audio menu, and in most cases only after the program begins, as I am often locked out of audio options during the first commercial. Fire TV devices, however, only playback in stereo for the CBA All Access app (although if you subscribe through Amazon’s Prime Channels instead of using the app, you will get 5.1 audio). Another mind boggler.
Disney+ – For the most part, this is a service that pretty quickly got their bugs fixed after it launched this time last year, although there are still a few quirks. If everything from your streaming device through to your display support UHD, HDR, and Dolby Atmos then you can stream Disney+ in its full glory, whether your device is a Roku Premiere, Amazon Fire Stick 4K, or Apple TV 4K. However, if your display does not support any form of HDR (as many earlier 4K sets did), then both your Roku and Fire TV device will only output 1080p HD video, and your Fire TV device will also be limited to 5.1 audio. There are workarounds documented online, but at least for me, I still can’t get Disney+ in 4K on my older non-HDR LG 65UF8500 or the Fire TV 4K connected in that room to output Dolby Atmos audio on the streaming service.
Apple TV – Last year, Apple rolled out their Apple TV app to Roku and Fire TV devices in an effort to drive higher subscription numbers for its fledgling Apple TV+ streaming service. Apple TV runs rather flawlessly on the company’s own devices, offering your content in the quality you purchased it at (UHD, HDR, Atmos, etc.), and even allows access to special features on those movies that have them. The same cannot be said about the app on Roku or Fire TV. For starters, there is no access to special features in any way shape or form on Roku or Fire TV. While Roku will give you Dolby Atmos audio where available, the Fire TV will only give you Dolby Digital 5.1 audio at best.
Streaming Device Frustrations
While Apple TV 4K is, perhaps, the best streaming device currently on the market (despite its processor getting a bit long in the tooth), not everyone can afford to spend $180 to install one on every television in their home. That’s one reason why both Roku and Fire TV devices are so popular, with Roku’s 4K-capable devices starting at $40 and Amazon’s Fire TV 4K retailing for $50. With their lower cost comes some sacrifices.
Roku – The streaming device darling of Wall Street has been in then news quite frequently these past 12 months, and not all of it has been positive. With the device market quickly approaching saturation, Roku has had to look for future revenue growth in other areas. One of the company’s main push has been to receive a monthly commission, so to speak, on those services you subscribe to by either signing up directly on your Roku device and/or through the Roku Channel Store. The other is taking a cut of the advertising revenue on ad-supported “free” services like the company’s own Roku Channel, Pluto TV, etc. This has caused some streaming services to either disappear momentarily for new customers or new streaming services not being available at all on Roku devices. This started in January of last year with both the AT&T Now service and the Fox Now TV-Everywhere streaming service as both services found themselves in a carriage dispute with the device manufacturer. All parties managed to resolve their disputes within a few weeks. But then AT&T/Warner Media’s HBO Max and Comcast’s Peacock services were not available at launch on Roku, with Roku wanting a cut of the monthly subscription fee for HBO Max and sharing advertising revenue on ad-supported Peacock. Comcast and Roku struck a deal last September (two months after launch) while Warner Media and Roku just recently came to terms after nearly six months of negotiations. And just recently, Spectrum has found their app suddenly not available on the Roku platform for new customers as their contract with Roku has expired and has yet to be renegotiated. Roku users should expect to see more of these disputes in the future.
Fire TV – Amazon is playing pretty much the same game as Roku, although we are not seeing quite as many “carriage disputes” on the Fire TV platform, with Comcast’s Peacock and Warner Media’s HBO Now not available at launch. HBO Now finally launched in November, while Peacock is still MIA on the platform.
Frustrating Odds & Ends
The following are minor irritations for some, major frustrations for others.
Lionsgate, Paramount, MGM, STX
These four studios are the last remaining holdouts with movie locker service Movies Anywhere. Basically, this means that any movies from these studios that you purchase or receive digital copies for can only be viewed on the service they were purchased or redeemed at. With movie code redemptions, this usually means either Vudu or iTunes/Apple TV.
Digital Codes for Television Series
Back in the days of UltraViolet, if you purchased or received a code for a television series distributed by a UV partner studio, that season or series would be viewable on multiple UV partner services. Unfortunately, Movies Anywhere (which essentially replaced UltraViolet) does not support television shows (with a few very rare exceptions). Now, if a code is even included with your purchase of a television show on physical media, it is usually almost exclusively Vudu.
No Upgrades for You
Apple made a big splash when they announced not only uniform pricing on most movies (SD, HD, UHD all at the same price), but “free” UHD upgrades on any movies you currently owned on HD. The catch was that the “free” upgrade to UHD was only applicable on the Apple TV platform and that same movie would remain in HD on all other Movies Anywhere retail partners like Vudu. If you wanted a UHD upgrade across all Movies Anywhere retailers, you would need to repurchase that title in the UHD format. The only problem is that some retailers (Apple TV and FandangoNow especially) do not allow their customers to purchase a title a second time, even if that title is now available in UHD, and quite often those retailers that do allow it (Vudu, for one) will charge full price, typically $15-20. The trick is to keep an eye out for $5 sales on Vudu or iTunes, where there is a workaround.
No Special Features for You
The other irritation is when a movie is released on physical media on Blu-ray but released on streaming in UHD, yet the digital code included with the Blu-ray is HD only. Worse, the digital version, either HD or UHD, will often not include any special features. A recent example would be the 2020 version of Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit). Universal released the film on physical media on DVD and Blu-ray with special features, yet the HD and UHD digital versions on Vudu contain no special features (to be fair, in this instance those special features can be accessed on the Movies Anywhere app). Most would agree that in these instances it would be nice if, when redeeming the HD code that came with the Blu-ray, we were offered the chance to upgrade to UHD for no more than $5.
Universal also released a special features packed UHD release of the Back to the Future trilogy back in October on physical media, but the digital versions also released at that time do not include any special features on any streaming service.
Older Transfers Remain
Last but certainly not least, many movies in the last few years have received newer scans (or transfers) from newly discovered elements (or even going back to the original camera negative), and these are quite often supervised by the movie’s director, cinematographer, or someone who worked closely with either. In some cases, the studio is simply replacing an old transfer originally scanned at 1080p and created for the movie’s DVD release with a new scan at 4K (or higher) to make the film more accessible to movie theaters as part of their Flashback Cinema program or for release on physical media such as 4K UHD Blu-ray. In most cases, especially if the movie is being released on 4K physical media, digital retailers will get that new transfer for their customers. Unfortunately, the HD streaming version is typically the same old transfer. One case in point is the movie Innerspace, directed by Joe Dante, and one of my personal all-time favorites. Warner Brothers Home Entertainment released this 1980s “classic” on Blu-ray in 2015, featuring a new scan of the film in 4K under the supervision of director Joe Dante. The result was a much more vibrant and colorful image, virtually free of built-in dirt and debris as well, compared to the 2K scan created for the 2000 DVD release that was also used for HD streaming and broadcasts which suffered from muted colors and a minor case of visible dirt and debris. One would think that the studio would want to replace the old, dated transfer with this much-improved one. Unfortunately, every digital retailer I have an account with that is part of Movies Anywhere has the older transfer created in 2000, and no one has this movie available in UHD.
Streaming, especially VOD, was supposed to be more convenient for consumers. And to some degree, it is. We no longer have to go to a store or wait for a disc to arrive at our doorstep, nor do we have to make space on our already crowded shelves of movies; we can simply open up our favorite streaming service, find the movie we want, and rent or purchase it right there and then and begin watching in less than a minute. As a consumer, though, we shouldn’t have to wrestle with the peculiarities of how a streaming service behaves on our devices or how our content looks or sounds on that service. And if and when we encounter an issue, we shouldn’t have to spend countless hours on the phone, in chat sessions, or lengthy email chains with retailers and studios in often futile attempts to have the issue resolved. Sadly, in most instances, we as consumers are placed in the middle, left to eventually live with the issue.
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