What’s a metadata crisis? It has nothing to do with the “Human Time Lord Meta-Crisis” from Doctor Who. It also has nothing to do with the resignation of Netflix’s Chief Marketing Officer. Instead, over the last week, Netflix has had some issues with the accuracy of their metadata. The metadata is what describes each title in Netflix’s streaming catalog: the name of the movie, the actors, the year it was released, is it in high-def (HD) and so on. In particular, titles that are in HD, surround sound or have closed captions are not being flagged as such.
Customers have seen the issue on Netflix’s web site, Apple TV, Sony Playstation3, Panasonic Blu-ray players and the Roku 2 among other devices. While the Netflix website normally lists thousands of TV shows and movies in HD, last week it only listed hundreds. On the Apple TV, closed captions still function but none of the titles are flagged as having them. The Roku and Playstation3 were no longer providing the option to chose alternate audio tracks or turn on closed captioning. On all of the aforementioned devices, some titles were not being flagged as being in HD. However, when playing titles, they would still play in HD and with surround sound. Regardless, it’s still confusing for the customer. There has not appeared to be any issue with the data that is fed to third-party developers.
As of Monday night, it appears the issue has started to clear up a bit with many titles being fixed (though the Apple TV was still not displayed the closed captions “CC” badge). The @NetflixHelps Twitter account was fielding a number of complaints from customers about the problem last week. Netflix responded through that Twitter account that they were aware of the problem and working on it. Netflix did not have any comment for this story so I don’t what the root cause of the problem is.
For some background, Netflix currently has over twenty million streaming customers and supports over seven hundred different devices that can access the service. As previously covered on Tech of the Hub, one of Netflix’s greatest challenges is running a reliable service. With that customer volume and the number of hardware and software permutations, there’s going to be some complexity in managing the platform. The wide range of devices have a variety of capabilities when it comes to audio and video quality. On top of this, Netflix maintains separate video encodings for different bandwidth levels given the wide range of speeds that customers connect at. Put this all together and Netflix needs to maintain fifty encodings of a particular movie or TV show.
For Netflix’s metadata, it may be even more complex. Based on some of Netflix’s technical presentations, in October 2011, their API was supporting over one billion calls per day from various devices (it’s a goal of Netflix for those API calls to become more efficient). It also appears that Netflix needs to maintain different versions of their API for the different devices on the market. Now, I don’t think there’s 700 versions of the API out there, but there’s a significant number that need to be maintained. Add to this the fact that Netflix has been migrating most of its plaform to the cloud and you’re going to see some hiccups.
So, how could Netflix reduce some of this complexity? The HTML5-based user interface they’ve deployed to a large number of connected devices is one example. Another answer would be to standardize requirements for HD and surround sound. To focus on surround sound for a moment, in 2010, Netflix announced that Dolby Digital Plus was its standard for surround sound. However, both the Playstation3 and the Apple TV use the less bandwidth-efficient Dolby Digital. For awhile, I wondered if both of these devices (and the Xbox 360) were simply taking a Dolby Digital Plus audio stream from Netflix and downmixing it to Dolby Digital. In fact, that’s not the case. It turns out that Apple TV 2 cannot handle Dolby Digital Plus. Even for Dolby Digital, Apple TV can’t decode it, it simply passes it to the A/V receiver. Netflix is serving out a Dolby Digital stream for these devices. Netflix could simplify by only offering Dolby Digital Plus for surround sound .
The problem with that approach is that it would cut off a significant number of customers from the advanced audio and video they enjoy from Netflix today (i.e. there’s at least
two 4.2 million Apple TVs (via AppleInsider) out there and tens of millions of PS3s and Xboxes). And to be fair to Netflix, the diverse mix of devices was a market reality they needed to embrace at the time to ensure their growth. The reality is that Netflix can only make demands like this for new devices going forward. In another words, if and when an Apple TV 3 comes out, Netflix should demand that it supports Dolby Digital Plus if they want surround sound from Netflix streaming. To retain customers, it looks like the complexity of Netflix’s platform will be with them for quite some time.
Update (1/27/2012): While most of the data now appears to be fixed, there are still a few stragglers out there like The Walking Dead. Also, Apple TV still does not display the “CC” badge to indicate a title has closed captions.