Netflix And Great Customer Service

I mentioned back in December how much I liked my Netflix player. I still do, but last week I ran into a problem. I have finally caught up with the rest of the world and realized what a great show Heroes is, and I’m happily working my way through season one. Everything had been going great, until I got to episode seventeen. The picture was flawless, as was the playback, but the dialog track was about two seconds behind the actors’ lips. I hate that. We soldiered through, pretending that we were watching a foreign film that had been dubbed into English.

Hoping for properly-synced dialog, we fired up episode eighteen. This one had music, but no dialog at all! I tried fast-forwarding, rewinding and restarting, but nothing worked. Since you can’t really skip an episode of Heroes and know what the heck is going on, we didn’t want to move on, but I did want to see if any other episodes were borked. I watched the first few seconds of episode nineteen and it suffered the same fate as eighteen: music but no dialog. Grrr…

I kept trying episode eighteen over the next few days to see if the problem would correct itself, but it never did. As a test, I tried viewing these same episodes from my Mac, just to see if it was a problem with the player or the source. Seventeen had the same sync problem, but eighteen did have dialog. Nineteen was silent, just like on the player. I decided the problem was on Netflix’s end, and that eighteen on the Mac had been served from a different server.

So, with this information in hand, I decided to contact Netflix. I assumed that all interaction with Netflix would be through email or “customer service” forms, like so many web businesses, but I was wrong. There’s a toll-free number that is staffed 24/7. When you check the support page and see the phone number, they give you a “priority code” and tell you how long the call queue is. On Sunday night, it was listed at “about a minute.” I called, entered the code, and in under a minute, I was speaking to a real, live human, who spoke perfect English (she sounded like a Texan to me, but I could be wrong). I described the problem to her and she checked their system to see what she could tell me. She said that the three episodes I reported, plus episode twenty-two, had already been reported and that they were already working to correct the problem.

Now, the call could have ended there, but here’s where the good customer service comes in. I asked if there was an ETA for getting them corrected. She didn’t just say “no,” or “not yet” or “we don’t know.” Instead she explained the process that Netflix has to go through to not only get corrected content, but to get the content in the first place. I had assumed, naively, that Netflix was just ripping DVDs to their servers and serving them up, but in fact, they get the content in ready-to-stream format from the studios, themselves. In the case of problems, they have to contact the studios, re-sign distribution agreements, and wait for the studios to provide them with corrected content. While I still didn’t have an ETA, her description of the process gave me a much better feel for how long it would be before the content was corrected. That’s good customer service.

So, in order to continue getting my Heroes fix, I figured out which discs I needed and put them on the top of my DVD queue. They should be here today.

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Hollywood Release Windows Suck

A couple of weeks ago I extolled the virtues of my new Netflix Player. I’m still thrilled with it, but the other day I happened to be looking at my instant queue from a web browser, and I noticed several lines in the queue that looked like this

Netflix Instant Queue

Notice anything about that? Yeah, it’s the “Available Until Dec 31, 2008.” WTF? Out of 53 entries in my instant queue, 9 of them will no longer be available after January 1, 2009. That really, really sucks. According to this article and this one, the reason for this is something called “release windows.” These are time periods that the movie studios allow their movies and shows to appear in a given format. Basically, after a certain amount of time, the studios yank content from one medium, such as downloads, and make it available on another, such as broadcast TV. According to the articles, that’s what the studios think will rake in the most money. It seems to me that the best way to maximize profit for a movie or show is to maximize exposure. This means making it available in as many formats as consumers are willing to pay for, for as long as possible. This would give consumers the most flexibility in how they watch the content. And maybe, just maybe, if it were super easy to legally watch the content that people want to watch, piracy would decline. I’m just speculating on that one, of course.

I understand that businesses have to make money to stay in business, but I’m really not happy that 17% of my queue will evaporate on January 2.

Thanks, Hollywood.

Three Days With the Roku Netflix Player

My Netflix Player arrived on Wednesday. It was supposed to be a family Christmas present, but you know how those things go. When something this cool arrives this early, there’s no way it’s going to stay boxed up for three more weeks.

The box is very small, maybe 4.5 inches on a side, and about 2 inches think, and it will fit easily next to our DVD player. Installation was absurdly easy. I attached it to the A/V input jacks on our DVD/VCR and plugged it in. I was planning on connecting to the Internet using my WiFi router, and as the player was coming on, I told the family to pray that it supported WPA2, and not just WEP, because if it didn’t, I’d have to reconfigure the router. Fortunately, it did support WPA2, and within about 30 seconds of connecting the A/V wires, it was online.

After it phoned home, it gave me a code that I had to enter at netflix.com to tie the box to my account. I did this on my laptop and almost before I could pick up the remote again, the screen had changed and was telling me that everything was now set up.

The first screen you see is your “Instant Queue.” This is a CoverFlow-like page which shows you the covers of all the videos in your Instant Queue. This is the one thing that I don’t like about the player: you can’t search for things to watch using the player itself. You have to go to the website using a computer, find what you want and stuff it into your Instant Queue. Once you do that, it shows up on the player within seconds. This is a bit hokey, and they really should have come up with a better solution. However, this is my only real complaint about the thing.

We did get off to a slightly bad start, though. The first thing we decided to watch was an episode of Doctor Who from 1974, featuring the One True Doctor™, Tom Baker. (Nothing against the current fellow, whom I like quite a bit.) I clicked the Play button and it started buffering. And buffering. And buffering. After about three minutes, it started playing, but within 30 seconds, it was buffering again. This was discouraging, but we decided to try something else, and the problem seems to be with this particular episode, as everything else has worked flawlessly.

The way it works is after hitting the Play button, the player buffers for about 30 seconds, then it starts playing. That’s it. You can pause and restart. You can rewind and fast-forward, though this is a bit klunky. What I really like is that if you stop watching a show and come back later, it remembers where you left off. I don’t know how many shows it will remember, but it’s at least one.

So, what did we watch? First, I watched the wonderful concert movie by Talking Heads called Stop Making Sense (it never gets old). Then we watched the first episode of the original (and best) Battlestar Galactica series. We then moved on to season 1 of The A-Team. Those things Thomas and I watched together. After he went to bed, I watched the first episode of season 2 of 30 Rock. We’ve also got season 1 of the original Knight Rider, Buck Rogers and Airwolf in the queue. Lots of great, old shows.

We were slightly disappointed that several of the shows Thomas was hoping for are not available for instant viewing. These include Fraggle Rock, Invader Zim and The Muppet Show. Perhaps these will be added later. Netflix currently has 100,000+ DVDs, but only 12,000ish of these are available for instant viewing. I have to believe this number will increase.

(I should note that they do seem to remove the ability to stream some DVDs occasionally. When they first announced support for OSX, I watched part of Purple Rain, just to test it out. Purple Rain is no longer available for streaming. I don’t know why, but it isn’t.)

So, after three days, we all love the Netflix Player. For us, it was certainly worth the $100 it cost.

I Am Full of Teh Happy

Yesterday was a good day for me on several fronts. Let me tell you them.

First, whilst searching for various things in the iTunes store, I saw that Metallica had released their new album, Death Magnetic. I had bought the first single, My Apocalypse, a couple of weeks ago when it came out, and I was excited that Metallica might be good again. I was a Metallica fan from way back in the 80’s. I loved, loved, loved every album up to and including …And Justice For All. I didn’t like “the black album” at all for several years, but then it grew on me. I thought everything after that, starting with Load, sucked out loud. I listened to the samples of the new album and immediately clicked the “Add to Cart” button. I’ve listened to the whole album about 5 times now, and it’s playing again as I write this. This album is full of awesome. It’s fast and heavy with glorious Kirk Hammett guitar solos throughout. If you liked “old” Metallica, you will love this album. Buy it. Memorize it. Love it. Standout songs include “My Apocalypse,” “Broken, Beaten & Scarred,” “The Judas Kiss” and “All Nightmare Long.” 

I was also happy to see that iTunes had finally added 0 + 2 = 1 by the very strange band NoMeansNo. I had this as a cassette, back when it was originally released, but I haven’t been able to find it in any format since. iTunes had one or two NoMeansNo records, but not this one. I have been checking periodically, but they never had it. Until yesterday. I’ve listened to it twice since buying it. It’s heavy and a bit odd, but very good. “0 + 2 = 1” and “The Valley Of the Blind” are the best songs on the record.

And if that weren’t enough musical goodness, Dar Williams’ new album, Promised Land, was also available. I think this is one of her best albums ever. I have her entire catalog, and this album has already moved to the top of the list for me. It has her signature lyrical twists, and it’s quite upbeat, with beautiful melodies. I’ve only listened to it twice since buying it, but it’s really good. My favorite songs, so far, are “It’s Alright,” “Buzzer” and “Troubled Times.”

Yes, I have eclectic musical tastes.

Next, as anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple released iPhone OS 2.1 yesterday. I was really looking forward to this update because OS 2.0.2 had lots (and lots) of problems and annoyances. The biggest problem I had was with how long it took to backup the phone. Every time I plugged it into my Mac, it would easily take over an hour to do a full sync. That’s absurd. I have less than 2 gigabytes of stuff on the iPhone and it took one-hour+. I have 60 gigabytes of stuff on my iPhone, and a sync never takes more than a few minutes. The other major annoyances were a terrible lag when using the onscreen keyboard, and the fact that when you updated an application, it didn’t stay where you put it, instead moving to the first available open spot. Not good. 

I’m very happy to report that iPhone OS 2.1 has fixed these problems, for me, anyway. A full sync is taking around five minutes, which is completely reasonable. The keyboard feels responsive, and after updating applications, they stay where I put them. Bravo, Apple. Keep the goodness coming, KTHX.

And finally, the first two discs of season 3 of Weeds arrived from Netflix. I watched the first three episodes last night, staying up far, far too late in the process. Damn, I love this show, even though I know I shouldn’t like it, if you know what I mean.