The dawn of SVOD
Disc versus digital: which is the way to go for the future of video consumption? Anthony Grimani looks at how streaming video on demand (SVOD) is changing our market forever.
I recently visited the home of a client where I had, about a month earlier, completed the calibration and commissioning of his magnificent new dedicated home cinema. This is one of those statement rooms that you see in magazines – the whole space was fully engineered with the latest in 4K HDR video projection and immersive audio. What’s more, the client and his wife are both engineers – they used to work for one of the major companies that provides entertainment content.
So, you’d expect them to have their finger on the pulse of technology and push the forefront of what’s available.
I asked him: “What have you been watching since I was here? Are you enjoying those UltraHD Blu-ray Discs I left for you?” (I always leave a juicy collection of high-quality demo material for the client as a gift.)
“No, man,” he said.
“I haven’t looked at any stuff like that since you left. Mostly, I just watch movies and YouTube videos on my Apple TV 4K.”
Cue the stunned silence on my part. All that effort and technology… to watch streaming media?
Do you know what your clients are watching? Increasingly, the answer is streamed content with low bitrates, low resolution and highly compressed audio. This trend is accelerating, and it’s going to cause one of two things to happen.
Some clients will say, “Gee, why did I build a home cinema and install all of this nice gear? I don’t need it to watch my shows.” They’ll move on, and you won’t see them again. There’s probably nothing you can do to recover them.
Second, some clients will wake up and say, “Man, this stuff I’m watching is (expletive)! Isn’t there something that can be done to make it better?”
Now, these clients don’t intend to go back to the dark days of disc. They’ll still want everything streamed – they’ll just care about the quality. That’s your cue. Maybe you can nudge them in the direction of this realisation, or maybe they have to find the path on their own. It’s probably different with different people.
Once the light bulb has come on though, you can step in with your solution.
And what is that solution? First off, make them aware that for best picture and sound quality, they really need to use UltraHD Blu-ray Discs. Then steer them to ‘high quality’ SVOD sources. Of course, this requires you to know what those sources are and also – here’s the big challenge at the moment – they have to be available in the first place.
Let’s take a look at the first part of this – what constitutes a high quality SVOD experience? There’s not really a standard for this, but I like to use the following criteria.
- The provider offers 4K HDR-10 or 4K Dolby Vision video. That’s what’s on major release UltraHD Blu-ray Discs. It’s at a higher bitrate on the disc, but you’re not in the same ball game if the streamed signal isn’t at least 4K and HDR!
- The provider also offers Dolby Atmos delivered by Dolby Digital Plus. And while I don’t know of anyone streaming DTS:X, it should be an option if available. UltraHD Blu-ray gets Atmos and DTS:X in lossless format, so you’re already losing some quality there. You can’t further diminish the experience by dropping SVOD down to 5.1 or 7.1.
- The above is available for current major studio release movies and TV shows – not just the original programming from that provider. This is where Netflix and Amazon flounder.
- The downstream internet connection is at least 25Mbps – and stable. You can argue this up or down some; there are a lot of factors at play. In my experience, though, 25Mbps is the minimum. Several SVOD services hover around 15Mbps for their top-tier streams. I’ve seen iTunes run up into the 30Mbps range. SVOD is at a huge bitrate disadvantage already; you can’t afford to further limit the quality with a slow connection.
Now for part two. Is all this even available? Here in the US, I’m only aware of one provider that meets all of the above criteria. They’re called VUDU, and they’re operated by one of our giant retailers, Walmart. They offer 4K HDR-10/Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos and the signal looks pretty decent at 25Mbps. Now, I understand from our fearless editor that VUDU is not available in Australia. That’s unfortunate, but I have no doubt someone there will pick up slack soon. One potential is iTunes. It already supports 4K HDR-10/Dolby Vision and just entered public beta testing of Dolby Atmos. As of this writing, however, it is unknown if or when iTunes Atmos will be available in Australia.
OK, I know what you’re thinking – those are some pretty high standards for SVOD. We can’t really do that because the stuff’s not even available. I get that, but you need to understand how wide the gap is between UltraHD Blu-ray and even the best quality SVOD. For average SVOD quality, it’s a gulf!
So how do we get from here to there? Ultimately, you may not be able to right now, but the more people demand it, the faster it will come.
In the meantime, there are couple of interesting avenues I’ll mention briefly. The first is VPN tunnelling. There are some folks experimenting with setting up US-based accounts for SVOD and then establishing a VPN to remote into them. There are a lot of gray areas, here, including technology and legality. I’m not suggesting anyone break the law, of course, but there may be legal ways to skirt rules that haven’t been written yet. If successful, this would give your clients in Australia access to US providers like VUDU that offer the highest-quality streams.
Second, you could build your own ‘SVOD provider’ by using local network storage and media playback. There are numerous server/client systems like PLEX, Kodi, Serviio, etc., and lots of devices that support them. You can rip UltraHD Blu-ray (from discs that are purchased, of course…) to the server and provide the client with a Netflix-or-better interface for watching movies in the highest quality possible. In some ways, it’s the best of both worlds – the convenience of streaming, the quality of disc, and it doesn’t require a high-bandwidth (or any) internet connection. Obviously, the down side is that content has to be ripped before viewing. Perhaps this is a service you offer your clients, or perhaps you provide them with a simple option to insert a disc in a drive and it auto-rips and populates the server. There are lots of ways to work this. The point is that the client sees no difference between navigating to an SVOD provider and navigating to his/her local library. Technically, it’s disc. But it’s also not disc.
We’re in a transition period for sure. High quality SVOD will eventually make it to all areas. Until then, we have to get a little creative to hold onto clients that care about quality. And that may be your best tactic. Just tell them to be patient. Watch YouTube for a while; you’ll let them know when it’s time to step up to the big league.
Chase Walton contributed to this article.