Reviews

Does Netflix know what it wants to be?

I contacted Netflix support a couple of days ago in order to give them my feedback regarding their choice of programming. I’d become disappointed with what they offered and I found myself wasting lots of time browsing their selections endlessly, only to give up and watch something else on some other streaming service. Furthermore, I thought their shows had become either too niche or too unappealing. In particular, I was disappointed with what I thought were “filler” movies and shows from Eastern countries. I have no interest in Bollywood or Turkish or Arab titles. I’ve tried watching them but I don’t like them, yet Netflix keeps showing them to me, plus a bunch of other shows from other countries.

Sure, they’re expanding into those countries and they’re buying up some of their content in order to appeal to those audiences, but why am I, a Westerner with Western entertainment values, being bombarded with Eastern shows that I don’t want to watch? I am Romanian by birth, and yet I don’t even watch Romanian shows. I can’t. I find the language harsh. I find the shows’ aesthetics harsh. I find the way they look at life unentertaining. When I watch “entertainment“, I want to be entertained. I find the Eastern languages even harsher to my ear, sorry. I fell in love with English a long time ago, I find it to be a beautiful language, and I want to watch movies and shows made in English, for Western sensibilities. I know that statement is bound to disappoint some people, but I also think you’ll agree that what I watch — what I do with my free time really — should be completely up to me.

It didn’t matter that I continually avoided Netflix’s recommendations and gave downvotes to shows I didn’t like in the hope that they’d stop showing them to me. Netflix kept continually pestering me with choices that were unappealing to me. So at some point, I had to admit the possibility that it wasn’t their recommendation algorithm, but their lack of quality content, that filled up my screen with thumbnails of weird, unappealing shows. I wanted to be able to opt out of everything but movies and shows made by English-speaking countries, for English-speaking countries. I told Netflix Support that and asked them to forward my feedback to the content programming team.

Here’s the interesting part: even before I got done typing all my comments into the chat box, the tech recommended that I cancel my subscription. I don’t know if that’s now become standard practice at Netflix, to tell customers that have been loyal to the service since they were mailing DVDs to essentially “f**k off”, but I thought I’d raise the issue here on my website. And just to be clear, cancelling my subscription was the obvious choice to me as well, but I was trying to offer constructive criticism, not to pull the plug.

The question I ask in my post’s headline implies that we look at Netflix’s history. They started with red vending machines that offered a limited but interesting selection of movies old and new. I used those machines and loved them. Then they offered DVDs by mail (that was another innovative thing) where they widened their selection considerably to include even some hard-to-find classics. I used that service and loved it. Then they switched to streaming, where they once again offered up a narrow but good selection of the market; certainly less of a selection than they offered with DVDs, but a good selection nonetheless, compelling enough to make me spend my money on it. I used that service from the get-go and loved it. I have to give them credit here, they predicted the future when they started offering their streaming service. But then they felt they had to expand in all sorts of ways, to grow their subscribership aggressively and to buy up all kinds of shows and movies so they could wow their new, fickle public. I remember their ads running constantly for years on end on many websites. If I remember correctly, they used the affiliate model for a while and offered payouts to those who would help them get customers. As recently as this year, their ads ran constantly on YouTube, to the point of making me swear and cuss.

Instead of being patient, instead of growing their customer base slowly but surely, winning them over with good content, instead of being a place where you could get some of the most interesting movies ever made, they wanted to be the place where you got to see most of the interesting movies and TV shows made today. Never mind the fact that no one in the history of TV channels has been able to do that, and not for a lack of trying.

Damn the classics, they also said, and they cut all of them out of their offering. At one point they had less than 20 classic titles listed on their site, none of them going back earlier than the 1970s.

But being modern, fresh, up-to-date can be an expensive endeavor. Licensing rights for the most popular movies and shows of today can run pretty steep. So even though it looked like they were on their way to doing that for a while, they had to change tack. They thought they might be the place for tons of TV shows, with less movies. But here’s the thing: people still want to see movies. So they continued including movies, but they bought lower quality ones — the ones that were cheaper to license plus a few A-list movies every now and then to headline their portfolio. They also started producing their own shows and movies. When I say producing, I mean producing, not making. There’s a difference between having a proper studio where you’ve got high standards in production values that apply to every aspect of a production, and sticking your logo at the beginning of a title. Also for clarity’s sake, let me say that great visuals do not equal a great title. You can film in 4K, light and color grade perfectly, but if the subject, script, casting, direction, acting and editing isn’t also top notch, that title’s going to suck. And now, as they’ve expanded their membership plans to most countries, they’re trying to be everything to everyone, and that means buying up shows and movies made in foreign countries to boost up their offering, and pushing those shows on everyone. Yuck!

At some point, the Netflix execs should sit down and think about what they want to be. I don’t think they’ve done enough of that kind of thinking. They’ve just been chanting “more, more, more of everything!” at the subscribers, at the studios and at the investors, and that can only go on for so long… Netflix has to realize it can’t keep throwing money at the problem that is their lack of vision. That’s unsustainable and irresponsible. They can’t be everything to everyone, because that role is filled by YouTube, and you can’t replace YouTube unless you get everyone to give you their content for free, and that comes with its own list of problems. Google can tell you all about that. They know very well the headaches they’ve had with YouTube.

At some point, Netflix has to decide what it wants to be. HBO knows it very well. TCM Streaming, God bless them, know their market so well (incidentally, I love movies made in the 30s and 40s). Hulu knows what it wants to be. Amazon Streaming knows damn well the role it fills with its service; you don’t see them splurging on everything out there — actually, you don’t see Amazon splurging on anything. And you’d better believe Disney knows what they’re going to do with their streaming service. Disney always knows what it wants to be.

Netflix… it’s trying this and that and the other thing, and then going to a bunch more stores and trying on those things as well… It’s buying up good shows, then cancelling them instead of giving them time to develop an audience. It’s buying up the streaming rights to great movies, but only for a little bit of time, so you end up adding a movie to your list but it disappears before you get the chance to watch it. It’s producing shows that are bizarre, or they’ve got trite scripts, or soap opera production values, or bad acting… there are all sorts of problems that put you off when you spend a few minutes watching them.

So what people end up doing on Netflix these days is exactly what they were doing on their TVs before Netflix existed: browsing the channels, wondering what to watch out of the sea of useless, boring programming available. And that means we’ve come full circle, and since there’s no real differentiator between Netflix and regular TV, there’s no point for its existence, certainly not at the rate that it’s burning through its cash.

What do you want to be, Netflix? Because loyal customers like me aren’t going to hang around forever. We might just do the thrifty thing and cancel our subscriptions for 8-10 months of the year, then watch to see what movies and shows you’re buying up, and switch it on for a month at a time, binge watch, then switch it off again. You may not care if only a few people do it, but you’re going to feel it in your bottom line after a while. Or we might just cancel our subscriptions altogether and use another service. It is after all what your support techs are advising people to do. Let’s see how that sort of thing works out for you.

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Reviews

More thoughts on computer piracy in Romania

In 2009, I wrote a post entitled “Is it any wonder there’s computer piracy in Romania“. In 2011, after a couple more years in the country, I wrote another post entitled “Rampant piracy in Romania“. The end of 2017 is practically here, I’ve been in the country for nine years and I can now say that my view on the subject has gotten more nuanced. I’ll explain.

Yes, computer piracy is rampant in Romania. When most Romanians think of “getting” a movie, TV show or a popular album, they don’t mean “buy it” online, they mean “get the torrent” for it. Judging by this, the situation isn’t good. And yet it’s not as simple as that.

It’s easy for an expat from the US to look at this in a binary way, but as I’ve lived in the country all these years and have had to conduct business here, I’ve encountered all sorts of barriers that are still in place and do not make it easy for Romanians to go the legal route when acquiring media.

Did you know that when you switch your credit card in iTunes from an American credit card to a Romanian bank card, there are no more movies and TV shows for you to purchase or rent? That’s right, those sections of the iTunes store disappear altogether. You still have music, so I suppose that’s something, but to think that Apple still hasn’t worked out the logistics of providing movies and TV shows to their Romanian customers after all these years is ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, did you know that already purchased TV shows and movies, ones purchased in the US, also disappear from iTunes when you switch to Romania? So if you haven’t downloaded them to your computer, they’re gone.

Oh, but you have downloaded them? Good, then even though you can’t access them from your Apple TV anymore, you can still open them in Quicktime and Airplay them to your Apple TV, right? Wrong. Can’t do that anymore. The Airplay button doesn’t show up anymore. You can still copy them back into iTunes and from there (and only from there) Airplay them to your Apple TV.

Also bonkers is the fact that the software purchased from the App Store with a US credit card can no longer be upgraded or downloaded once you’ve switched to a Romanian bank card. First you’ll get a message saying that you’ll be switched to the Romanian Store.

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Then you’ll get a message saying the software isn’t available for download anymore.

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You can go through the song and dance of signing out, signing back in, deauthorizing and reauthorizing your devices, but you still won’t be able to download your software until you switch back to a US credit card.

At this point you’re probably saying, “This is all fine and good Raoul, but these last few things you’re talking about seem to apply only to expats. Boo-hoo for you, but what about the general Romanian population?” Well, they still can’t buy movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store, remember?

Now, some of you may know that three online streaming services have launched in Romania in 2017: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Go. This is a great step in the right direction, but it comes with its own set of problems.

The Romanian versions of these services have nowhere near the number of titles available in the US. You get somewhere around 50% of the titles (maybe 60-70%), for about the same price that you pay in the US. You have to keep in mind the average monthly wage in Romania is about $485 (see this), while in the US the average monthly wage is $3396 (see this). That’s a huge difference, and yet Romanians are expected to pay the same prices as the Americans. That sort of ridiculous expectation is found across the board in Romania, for all sorts of products that people need and use.

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Netflix Romania costs me 9.99 Euros a month for HD streaming. There’s also another plan that costs 11.99 Euros a month if you want Ultra HD. And yet the amount of titles available to me are roughly half of those available in the US. I know, because I was able to enjoy the US titles for a number of years after moving to Romania, before Netflix decided to close that access. Now it won’t even work via VPN and I’m stuck having to use their Romanian offering. So in essence, I’m paying double what I’d be paying in the US and most of the stuff I want to watch isn’t available to me. What a great deal they’ve worked out for Romanians, right?

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HBO Go Romania costs half of what Netflix charges, 19,99 lei a month (that’s 4.29 Euros) but once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. I was able to browse through only a few hundred on their site, while the US site says they have more than 4000 titles. Plus, their service doesn’t work on my Apple TV. It also doesn’t work on my iMac. I get a strange error message when I attempt to play most titles on their website: “failed to load license”. When I contacted their tech support, they told me HBO Go Romania isn’t supported on Apple TVs. It also does not work on my iPad or my iPhone, so I can’t connect them directly to my TV either. (It works just fine on these devices in the US, but when you open these apps in Romania, you get an error saying the service is unavailable.) I was advised to use a browser other than Safari, which once again means I can’t Airplay titles to my Apple TV and am stuck watching them at my desk, which I’m not interested in doing. They suggested I try to Chromecast to my Apple TV. Sure… I’m going to fiddle with workarounds because you couldn’t be bothered to do a proper product launch in Romania…

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Amazon Prime Video costs 2.99 Euros a month for the first six months and 5.99 Euros a month after that. It’s the most affordable streaming service and it’s got several shows I like to watch. But once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. However, it works perfectly on my Apple TV and on my computer, so out of the three, I’m happiest with it.

One way both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (but mostly Netflix) thought they’d make up for the scarcity of titles in their Romanian offering was to scatter their catalogs with Bollywood movies. Because obviously Romanians like watching Bollywood movies. We’re right next to India and historically speaking, our cultures are pretty much identical… WTH, Netflix and Amazon? We’re in Europe! There are a ton of English, French, Italian and German titles you could have added to your services but you give us Bollywood? And oh, let’s not forget Turkish shows… Because there aren’t enough of them on Romanian TV, and because Romanians just love to watch TV programming from a nation that has invaded them over and over and over, has abducted their children to be used as indentured servants and soldiers, raped their women, pillaged their towns and villages, and installed their own puppet regimes to suck most of the wealth out of the country. This wasn’t too long ago, mind you. Romania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the war of 1877-78 (see this) after hundreds of years of occupation, and they also had to fight them again in WWI.

Let’s look at retail stores now, online or brick and mortar. Say you want to go and buy a movie on Blu-Ray, so you can see it at a proper 1080p resolution. Most of the titles you’ll find in stores are on DVD (that’s 480p resolution) and they cost between 30-50 lei. Who the heck would want to buy DVDs anymore? You can’t even buy a non-HD TV anymore. The cheapest ones you’ll find are at least 720p, so who would buy a 480p movie?

Do you begin to see why piracy is still rampant in Romania? The fastest and easiest way to get an HD movie or TV show in Romania is to download it via a torrent, and not for a lack of trying to get it legally, mind you.

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Thoughts

Where’s the Netflix Shelf?

The more movies and shows Ligia and I watch on Netflix, the more convinced we become that Netflix lacks a vital feature. We call it the Shelf. Where is it?

The Netflix Shelf would hold titles we’ve seen and loved. It would contain two collections: a smart collection, which would automatically bring together the titles we’ve rated 4 stars or higher), but more importantly a manual collection, where we could add titles we’d like to watch again in the feature — movies and shows we really love, perennial favorites if you will.

Within the Shelf, we could sort titles by genre, keywords, actor or director (using the metadata added by Netflix staff or metadata we could add ourselves).

There were so many occasions we saw a movie, loved it, wanted to store it somewhere so we could see it again in the future, but didn’t want to leave it in the queue, cluttering up the list of titles we still haven’t seen. There was and is no place for them yet, and that’s regrettable, because it’s a lost opportunity for Netflix to create customer goodwill at a time when they need it.

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How To, Reviews

How to watch Netflix from abroad

At the start of 2009, when I left the US to spend most of the year abroad, I was an avid Netflix subscriber, and I looked forward to being one even as I lived abroad. There was a loophole in the Netflix protocols which allowed my wife and I to watch movies from outside the US (see this post), but they plugged it very quickly — within three days after I wrote about it.

I was, needless to say, very disappointed. Here I was, a US citizen, with a US mailing address, a US bank account and a US credit card, wanting to watch movies legally instead of downloading them from torrent websites, not able to do it, just because my IP address happened to be from another country. This was not fair. I cancelled my subscription. In hindsight, my anger was unnecessary. The situation is probably a result of certain stipulations in their contracts with the movie studios.

Still, there’s obviously a need for a legal way to watch movies online, right? And until Netflix (or another company) decides to open up their servers to paying customers from all over the world (which I hear might happen), here’s how to watch Netflix from abroad, right now.

You’ll need:

  1. A US credit card and a US mailing address. If you’re from the US but you happen to be abroad, great, you’re in luck, because you probably still have both of these. If you’re not from the US, see if you can make some arrangements with friends in the US.
  2. A VPN connection that will give you a US IP address, or a DNS Proxy Service subscription which will make Netflix and other US streaming sites think you’re based in the US. 
  3. A computer that’s compatible with Netflix Streaming. At this time, I believe only Mac and Windows computers can do it. The last time I tried it, a Linux machine wasn’t compatible. You could get a Netflix-compatible device or media appliance but if you want to keep things simple, stick with a computer.

That’s all you’ll need.

The DNS Proxy Service is a fairly new offering and is, in my opinion, the easiest way to configure your device to watch Netflix from abroad, without installing any additional software or configuring a custom VPN connection. You simply change the DNS servers for your network card (see these instructions).

Now let me talk a bit about the VPN service. In the two years I’ve spent abroad, I’ve used two services: AceVPN and HideMyNet. I’m currently using HideMyNet for my VPN service, and I’ve been using them for the past four months. Both cost about the same, but from my experience, HideMyNet has faster, more reliable service.

I started out with AceVPN but after several months, I started getting a lot of buffering messages when watching Netflix (you know, where you wait for it to load up the movie). It would take minutes, sometimes 5-10 minutes to load up a movie, and toward the end of my subscription with them, the movie would stop playing multiple times as we watched it, and we had to wait for it to rebuffer. It was annoying, particularly when the movie stopped playing during a gripping scene. Who knows, perhaps they were experiencing growing pains or temporary issues with their servers…

Out of the blue, the folks from HideMyNet contacted me to see if I wanted to try their service and write about it. Disclaimer: they offered me a 1-year subscription to give an honest opinion about their service. I told them I would, but that I’d need to try out their service thoroughly before I spoke about it, and if I found anything negative, I was going to reveal that as well. That was back in April of this year. It’s now August, four months later, and after all this time, I can definitely recommend them.

I do have a few pieces of advice for you:

  • If you’re not sure how to set up a VPN connection as L2TP or PPTP on your Mac, go with OpenVPN and Tunnelblick. Check out their setup instructions for the details. If you’re on Windows, setting up an L2TP connection is super easy and takes only a few minutes.
  • Make sure to ask their Tech Support which of their servers would be faster for you. Here’s some general advice I got from them on this issue: “Generally you want to connect to whichever server is closest to you [geographically]. If you’re in the EU you should try our DC and NYC servers. If you’re in Asia you should try the Seattle or LA servers. If you’re in South America you should try the Dallas and LA servers.” 
  • They currently have a limit of two simultaneously connected devices, so keep that in mind. I believe Netflix has the same limit, but if you were, for example, watching Netflix on one computer and browsing the internet on another, both through their VPN service, you wouldn’t be able to, for example, connect a third device (computer or phone) through the VPN service until you disconnected one of other two.

So there you have it. That’s how you can watch Netflix from abroad. It’s simple, it’s easy and it’s legal.

On a side note, I can’t understand why movie studios prefer to hang on to costly and outdated ways of distributing content, and thus encourage piracy, instead of promoting lower-cost, easily available methods of renting or purchasing their content, for any customer, anywhere. There are many people who would rather pay than use torrents, but the cost is either too high, or there’s no way to pay even if they wanted to. Thank goodness for VPN technology, otherwise I’d start thinking about using the torrents as well.

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Thoughts

Hooray for Netflix Watch Instantly abroad

Updated 8/11/11: The loophole detailed in this post has been closed off by Netflix, but there’s a simple way to bypass their new rules, provided you have a US credit card and mailing address. I’ve written a new how-to article that details how I’ve been watching Netflix from outside the US for the past year. ➡ Click here to read it

My wife and I are avid Netflix users, and we had a problem. We knew we’d be going abroad for an extended stay in Romania, and we didn’t know how we could get Netflix service there. Of course we realized DVD shipments wouldn’t work, but we thought the Watch Instantly feature would at least be available to us. I love streaming movies to our laptops, and was excited by the availability of Watch Instantly on our Macs when it became available in November of 2008.

The official word from Netflix is that Watch Instantly is not available outside of the US, due to licensing agreements.

Netflix Watch Instantly not available outside of the US

Fortunately, there’s a loophole. If you go to your queue, you can select movies from the queue and stream them to your computer by clicking on the Play button there. It’ll take a while to buffer them — I think it’s because a connection from Romania to Netflix isn’t as reliable for streaming movies as a connection from inside the US. The Netflix player insists on buffering the stream all the way to 100%, but in a few minutes or a little more time, depending on the speed of your connection, you could be watching a Netflix movie on your computer, as if you were back in the US.

Netflix Watch Instantly buffering outside the US

Netflix Watch Instantly playing outside the US

I hope Netflix doesn’t close this loophole. Their restriction doesn’t make sense to me in the first place. After all, non-US residents can’t get Netflix accounts. You have to have a US address and live in the US in order to get a Netflix account. And if you, a US citizen or resident, happen to be traveling abroad and you have an active Netflix account, you should be able to log on and watch movies. You’re paying for the service, so it’s your right.

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Reviews

Netflix Watch Instantly comes to the Mac

On October 27 (last month), Netflix started testing a new way to stream movies for its Watch Instantly feature. They began using Microsoft’s Silverlight player, which is platform-independent and can still handle the DRM that movie studios love so much. This meant that Mac users were no longer left out of the picture, and could finally watch Netflix streaming movies on their machines.

On October 31, they finished their first round of testing and allowed all Netflix customers to opt into the new feature. They cautioned users that there might still be some bugs and lower-than-expected quality on some movies. I started using the new feature immediately, and after having watched a few movies, here are my impressions:

  • Streaming quality is indeed a bit lower than expected on some movies, and during some scenes. Not sure why, but it’s not prevalent, and will likely be addressed soon.
  • PowerPC Macs are left out of the picture, not due to Netflix, but Microsoft, who have not released a version of Silverlight for PowerPC Macs — I doubt they will, unfortunately. This means our iMac G5, which now works great (after repeated trips to the Apple Store for repairs), will never be able to stream Netflix movies. I think that’s pretty sad.
  • Silverlight doesn’t come with any preference pane for Macs where its various options can be adjusted. This means that unless certain of its built-in options are adjusted “from the factory”, so to speak, your Mac’s screen will go dim and your screensaver will come on while you’re watching a movie on full screen. Your Mac might even go to sleep. Every time the screensaver comes on, Silverlight exits full screen mode. This gets old pretty quickly, as you can imagine, and it’s not ideal by any measurement.
  • Movies cache and play much quicker than before.
  • Netflix will remember where I stopped watching a movie, and will bring me back to that exact point when I log on again and hit play on a title. I watched a portion of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen while logged onto Netflix from Safari, then went to bed; the next day, I logged on through Firefox, clicked on Play, and almost instantly, the movie started playing from the very spot where I’d stopped watching.
  • Did I mention we can watch streaming movies on our Macs, finally? This is incredibly cool!

I couldn’t be happier with Netflix. As a service, I think it’s one of the best business ideas that was ever put into practice. It fulfills a customer need at a reasonable price, and (at least for now), that price includes the ability to watch a LOT of streaming movies at no extra charge. I say “for now” because, let’s face it, there are costs associated with licensing and serving streaming movies (copyrights, hardware, bandwidth, overhead, etc.), and at some point, I think Netflix will have to adjust its prices to reflect this. I don’t think the price changes at that point will be big, but as more and more people start using the Watch Instantly feature, the extra usage will need to be taken into account.

I also believe that long-term, Netflix intends to emphasize its movie streaming service and slowly phase out its DVD mailers. It won’t happen until they can ensure a ubiquitous streaming experience for its customers, and that means flawless streaming for TVs and computers alike. They’ve already made incredible inroads with Roku, Xbox 360, and with Tivo, which can all stream Netflix movies directly to TVs. Now that you can watch streaming movies on both Macs and PCs, things are looking better and better, and Apple TV looks more hamstrung than ever.

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