The problem with Netflix’s 5 star rating system

I have a problem with Netflix’s rating system.  There’s not enough room to be “meh” about something.  Observe:

There are a lot of things that Netflix recommends for me that are 3 stars to 3 and a half stars.  This, by Netflix’s terms, means I’d like it but maybe not really like it.  Two stars is pretty universally unacceptable as anything less than 3 is something I wouldn’t like.  Fine.

But what happens when there’s something that I don’t hate but I don’t specifically like it either?  There should be an “It was okay” option, but that is nowhere to be seen.

When you think about it in those terms, Netflix’s star rating system is counter-intuitive.  3 stars should be liked (but not loved), 4 stars is “it was great”, 5 stars “OMFG fantastic!” – that’s all fine.  But on the other end of the spectrum we’re missing an option.  In every other movie rating system I can think of, 1 star means that it wasn’t horrible.  There was at least some merit.  If there wasn’t, it would have zero stars.  So we’re missing a crucial element in scoring here.  Zero should be hated it, 1 should be didn’t like it (maybe there was some political, sexual or ideological stuff in the movie or show that rubbed you the wrong way but it wasn’t absolutely horrible), and 2 stars would be the “meh” rating – “it was okay.”

Here’s an example: my kids – my daughter, in particular, really like Yo Gabba Gabba.  The first time I put it on for my son when he was her age, he was a bit baffled and I absolutely hated it. But because my daughter likes it so much, he’s come around, and after watching some of it, I realize it’s not nearly as bad as some other things they could be watching.  But I don’t like it.

Where does that put me?  I don’t want to give it 3 stars, because along with Yo Gabba Gabba comes the Teletubbies and the Wiggles and frickin’ Barney and Friends and those cannot be tolerated.  But I also can’t give it 2 stars, “didn’t like it”, because no matter what my feelings about the show itself are, it’s not horrible, and the kids like it.

So, Netflix, what will it be?  Can you give us a 0 star option so we can duly and appropriately lash out at movies we hate without having to still give them 1 star?

Dear Santa: Here’s my wishlist for 2010

Dear Santa —

WTF, dude?  I mean, I know we haven’t talked in like 25 years or something, but really?  Cancelling the best show on TV (Dollhouse, duh), and what do we get instead in 2010?  Freaking Caprica?  Are you on drugs?  And don’t even get me started on Stargate: Universe…or, rather Stargate: Who’s Driving this Bus? No one, the same person writing the fecking script.

Just so there’s no misunderstandings next year, here’s my wishlist for next winter holiday.  You have plenty of time, Santa.  Don’t.  Screw.  It.  Up.

  1. A standalone Google Wave client.  Google Wave is cool, right, and with Chrome I can make an application shortcut and have it behave like its own app.  So this should be pretty easy, since the platform has its’ own set of built-in gadgets.  All I want is the freaking menu bar to blink when I have a new message/wave.  Seriously, is that so hard?
  2. Joss Whedon show that doesn’t get cancelled after 2 seasons.
  3. For that matter, a Dollhouse movie would be nice.
  4. HBO and Showtime to join Starz in signing lasting contracts with Netflix to stream movies and TV shows, thereby adding, like, every movie ever into Netflix’s Instant Viewing database.
  5. Netflix, Hulu, or someone to make some sort of deal to offer pay-per-view, online screenings of movies that are in theaters right now.
  6. Universally accepted CSS/HTML standards that eliminate browser compatibility issues.  Dammit.
  7. Heroes to either be put to death, or else to not suck, whichever is less impossible.
  8. SteamnVidia, or OnLive to launch a cloud computing video game streaming service so I don’t need to upgrade my graphics card every time I want to play a new game.
    8-a.  Steam, nVidia, and/or OnLive to not be competitors in the cloug computing video game streaming industry.  It would be ridiculous to have to have 3 different monthly subscriptions or some such bullshit.
  9. Frickin’ Flying Cars.  Seriously, it’s 2010, and the best we can do is a single company running space tourism jaunts into low orbit for rich folk?! If you can’t give me flying cars, the least you could do is those hoverboards from Back to the Future II so I can fall on my face and break my nose.
  10. A fat wad of cash that falls from the sky and is completely tax-free so we can finish fixing up the house and spend all day making WordPress themes.

also, a lifetime supply of chocolate from any of these companies would also be appreciated:

Oh, and Santa, if you could arrange to not have the Christmas season (by which I mean when Christmas music and decorations start appearing in malls and stores) start the day after Halloween and put it back to the day after Thanksgiving the way it used to be, that would be great.

thanks.  your pal,

p.s. all the usual items on my wishlist (world peace, an end to global hunger and poverty, universal health care, an environmentally stable future, a MacBook Pro) are still implied.  thx.

the not-so-hidden value of netflix

i’m pretty much completely in love with netflix.

it started with some casual experimentation through a friend during college.  he had a netflix subscription and we’d often get triple features of obscure asian action flicks (digging deep in the early career of jet li with the once upon a time in china series — which i highly recommend, btw) and post-modern art films like  eXistenZ and naked lunch (and pretty much anything else by david cronenberg).

after graduation, netflix and i drifted apart, and i spent more time with the cult classics, indpendent and anime sections at hollywood video.

all that changed when erin and i had kids.

what used to be a simple 20 minute trip to see what we haven’t watched already and browse the new video releases, suddenly became: “do we take G with us?  should one of us go alone?  this sucks…maybe we can just download something…”  suddenly, netflix was not only a great library of obscure videos, but a welcome replacement for what used to be the friday night trip to the video store.

sure there’s the fact that you don’t get your videos right away.  but i think that’s just a matter of retraining your brain.  rather than expecting you’ll hit the video store on friday, if you already have a queue set up of stuff you want, one that you’re watching and updating in between deliveries, you’re guaranteed that when friday (or whenever) hits, you’ll have something you know you want to watch.  and the recommendation engine really is pretty good (most of the time).

but even that isn’t what makes netflix a comcast- (or insert-cable-company-name-here) killer.  no, the real secret (that isn’t really a secret) of netflix is their instant viewing catalog.

i’ve been using the watch instantly feature a lot lately.  much more so than the dvd rentals themselves.  often, we’ll forget to put the dvd’s in the mail — something that was completely unfounded a couple years ago.  but i don’t beat myself up over losing value in the membership with netflix by hanging onto dvd’s longer than we need to anymore.  and the reason is that there are hundreds — if not thousands — of titles i want to watch that i can check out right this second.  my 4 year old just finished the full run of the original astroboy series, which he’s been working on for the past several weekends.  we watched wall-e for the first time streamed through netflix, and then for the second and third times.  we’re not really  huge on dora the explorer, but the fact that you can stream the full first and second seasons means that if and when it comes up, we can play it for the kids and not have to own the dvds.  and we’ve discovered great new kid shows like kipper and the rubbadubbers that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

watch instantly is perfect for hermetic parents like us, who are more likely to buy books on amazon than hop in a car to barnes & nobles or a used book store because the latter means making oneself look vaguely presentable to the outside world, getting the kids’ jackets and shoes on, remembering to take the kids to the potty, making sure to take the dog outside to pee…by the time all that’s done, it’s time for lunch (or dinner, or bed, etc…).  i’d love to be able to go see new movies, but being able to see new-ish rentals streamed via netflix isn’t too bad, either.

it’s all thanks to their recent partnership with starz, a premium cable channel like hbo and showtime that honestly, i’d never even heard of before i read this article in wired.  but i’m sure glad they forged the deal, because all of a sudden, netflix exploded with streaming options the like of which longtime subscribers had never seen before.  and not just the weird, obscure, b-movie indie-type films like cannibal: the musical or B.U.S.T.E.D.(both of which you can stream, by the way, and i recommend both of them).  no, as previously mentioned, mainstream — and top selling — flicks like wall-e and bridget jones’s diary can be streamed as well now.

how netflix pulls it off involves a complex system of who has access rights for broadcasting films that i only understand half of.  i recommend reading the previously mentioned (and linked) wired article for a better explanation than i could begin to articulate.  what i do know is that it’s one thing to rent out dvds (or cds, or videos) because ownership law states that once you own something, you can pretty much do whatever you want with it shy of reproducing copies of it yourself and profiting off it — which includes renting out your copies of the originals.  once you decide to stream content — this applies to any content, be it video or audio — you enter into a whole different world of copyright law as it applies to broadcasting and who gets what royalties.  by partnering with starz, starz essentially deals with the legal stuff — because they already have that in place.  netflix shares starz’s access to new (and old) movies, and passes along the streaming content to its’ subscriber base.  i only hope that eventually hbo and showtime decide to stop fighting netflix and jump on the boat, because it shouldn’t matter to them — either way they’ll get their paycheck, and i’m guessing a whole bunch more people will jump onto netflix if netflix has a vast new library that includes everything hbo or showtime has access to.

this, of course, makes netflix public enemy number 1 in the eyes of the other content providers for movies and television — your cable company.  it will be interesting to see how things play out, but already there’s momentum to move stuff online and content providers will need to think (and act) more like isps to keep their users.  soon it will be hulu + netflix vs. cable tv with hbo.  i know what side i’m on: i may have a cable subscription, but it’s not tv that’s running through that coax — it’s data.

fix the music biz by taking cues from the porn industry

playboymp3some ideas occurred to me after my recent post about the music industry, and then erin said something that i thought was not only genius, but perfectly summed up the kind of thinking that needs to happen to save the music business: if you want to figure out what people will pay for online, look at the porn industry.

now, i’m not condoning looking at porn; in general, i consider porn addiction to be similar to smoking — a seemingly innocuous habit that is just as difficult to quit, and causes numerous side-effects, mostly invisible or under-the-surface (only instead of being something somewhat quantifiable and medically recognized like second-hand smoke, the side effects are sexism, objectification, and a generally unbalanced gender appreciation — all social issues, and therefore less tangible).  in this case, however, it’s a perfect analogy.  there’s plenty of porn you can get for free.  you only need to google, turn your safe search filter off, and bam! porn.  i’ll probably get some porn spam just by saying the word porn in this post.  and yet, the online adult entertainment industry (by which i mean: porn) is one of the largest, most lucrative, and fastest growing online business industries.  it makes tons of money every day.  so much so, that no one can really, accurately tabulate exactly how much.  these guys aren’t worried about their stuff being stolen, and they aren’t telling porn addicts to please pay first before downloading their stuff.  they know that they’ve got the goods, and the people will come back for them.

let’s take a look at what’s happened to porn in the last 10 years or so. for this,  i’m gonna briefly pull out my old person voice: you kids may not remember this, but once upon a time, porn came in magazines, printed on paper, and the only way to get it was to a) creep into a bookstore and ask for the stuff behind the counter looking guilty, b) go to a sleazy corner magazine and/or liquor store and hand the trashy magazine to the clerk, looking guilty, c) slink into your parents’ closet and steal your dad’s collection, or d) go to the same sleazy corner liquor store and shove the dirty magazine under your shirt and take off — chances are, you’d only get away with that one once or twice before you’d have to switch liquor stores.  there was sort of a fifth option, too, which was find one of the newsstands that sold the cheap, $1 newsprint rags that was 80% personal ads (you know, like the craigslist adult personals, before there was such a thing) and 20% black & white, amateur-ish photos often with stars over the goods.  this was the easiest in terms of the guilt factor, but the least rewarding in terms of getting your rocks off.

when the internet exploded, the porn biz was probably one of the first industries to make the transition online.  as they did, the physical magazines took a nosedive.  why suffer the guilt and shame of having to ask a dweeby, greasy-haired nerdboy at Borders for the latest issue of Hustler when you could get the same stuff at home, and you don’t even have to get dressed?  now, it’s second nature; does anyone buy Playboy magazines anymore?  porn and the internet are as natural as peanut butter and jelly.

so let’s go back to music, how does porn apply to music?

well, one thing i was thinking about, that’s been discussed in various forms around the ‘net — and is being done in various forms already — is the idea of a paid membership site.  sort of like a netflix for music.  here’s one way it’s being used: Zune Pass lets you access thousands of songs, download unlimited music for $14.95/month (or something to that effect).  you get to keep 10 of those a month, the rest — if your membership ever expired — die or expire or self-destruct or something like that.  it’s an interesting idea.  there’s the new neil young archive, which — when it is completed — will essentially allow access to an expansive online archive of everything he’s ever recorded ever (for a hugely exorbitant price).

here’s my $0.02: think of your favorite record label — what if they put everything they ever recorded online.  everything.  including live concert videos (either professionally produced or bootlegged and uploaded by fans), b-sides, outtakes, interviews, some new, exclusive content, etc, etc, etc.  you pay a monthly fee, say $10/month, get unlimited, unrestricted access to download decent (but not perfect) quality mp3s (say 128 or 192kbps), and access to watch and listen to all the extra bonus stuff.  just for kicks, let’s suggest the possibility, too, that members get other bonuses, too, like discounts on merchandise and CDs.  now, let’s widen the perspective here: what if a bunch of indie labels went in on this together?  you get unlimited downloads of thousands of great songs, old and new, a huge online music library at your fingertips, most of which would never hit the radio, plus access to exclusive online content and goodies and discounts on real merchandise you can wear or pop into your CD player, for one low price a month.  wouldn’t you pay for that?

there would be the argument that the labels would lose money doing something like this, but i don’t think so.  with the kind of downloading that’s going on already, i think it would instead legitimize the downloading that’s already being done, putting cash back into the pockets of the people who made the music happen.  not only that, but kickbacks on actual merch would put a demand back on physical goods and possibly encourage some extra sales of disks and clothing.  the key is that the monthly cost would need to be low enough that the extras balanced out the fact that the people you’re targeting can get half of this stuff for free.

i’m not a marketing genius.  i’m not in the music business, i don’t know what it’s like to run a music label.  this is just vaporware; pipe dreams of things i wish would come true.  but there is something i do get — i get the tech.  this idea is both very possible and already being done in other industries.  it would be easier to do this with music than it would for, say, movies or television, like what netflix and hulu are doing, because the files are so much smaller and easier to stream and download.

the only way to stay ahead of the game is to think like a web 2.0 startup — use existing technologies to market and make available your product in a format that your audience is already familiar with.  people aren’t going to stop downloading just because you tell them to.  there needs to be an alternative that actually entices people to pay.  as any parent should know, negative reinforcement doesn’t work very well.  instead, reward your fans for good behavior, and they will come back to you with their wallets open.

fantasize about that.

netflixed movie review: who watches the watchmen? no, really, who watches the watchmen?

we rarely (if ever) go to movies in the theatre anymore. this is sometimes depressing when long awaited films are released in the theatre that we really, really want to see. as the kids get older (particularly our youngest), scheduling a block of 4 or so hours where they can be sat by the grandparents will be easier, but up to now it wasn’t really reasonable to expect that they’d do alright for that stretch of time. currently, we’re struck by the frustration about not being able to see the current harry potter movie.

most of the “new” movies we watch are via netflix. i hope to make this a sort of ongoing series in which i review movies that have been released fairly recently on dvd (or, you know, not) that we got via netflix. i have a problem (moral, ethical) with downloading torrents of cammed or otherwise pirated movies that are still in the theatre. besides the fact that they are usually sub-par quality in some regard, besides the fact that, you know, it’s illegal,  i actually want to give filmmakers i appreciate money, even if that’s just royalties from a netflix rental.

so, we watched the watchmen yesterday (saying that feels a little postmodern; “who watches the watchmen” is a tagline and theme in the film and comic books).

the watchmen movie was something i was anticipating for a couple of years, ever since the actuality of it was mentioned via a doomsday clock counter to the movie release in an issue of Wired. creator alan moore has gone on the record a number of times saying that making a film of the watchmen should never happen. half of the message of the watchmen is in the medium of the comic book, and that gets lost in the translation when you move it to moving pictures. that hasn’t stopped studios from trying, and failing, to find ways of adapting it to the big screen. finally, director zach snyder was approached, and realized that if he didn’t do the film, someone else (with less regard for the original material) would, and it would suck.

my three word review? it still sucks.

but at least it’s better than it could have been.

seriously, i really wanted to like this movie. a lot. the graphic novel changed the way i read comics. it did that for a lot of people. it changed the face of comic books as a whole, and opened the path for a new generation of comics authors to come through and communicate real messages and stories through pictures and speech bubbles. the comic just has so many layers, i could seriously talk about it all day. my first exposure to it, in fact, was in a class on non-traditional narrative storytelling in college (in which comics were a big part, as were music videos, and, to a lesser extent, roleplaying games (something i added via a presentation and simplified game system me and a friend built)). it took what i had up to that point accepted as standard comic fare and turned it on its head, ripped out its guts, and prodded the remains with a stick while making analytical comments about the state of not only comic books and comic book storytelling in general, but also of the state of society and world politics. it told a story that was both about comic books and comic book characters and contained within a comic book with comic book characters while simultaneously telling a dr. strangelovian story about the cold war, and an alternate history of what the world would be like if our involvement in world war ii and viet nam were unquestionable victories. The Comedian, whose murder begins the cycle of events that are contained between the covers of the graphic novel and shot on the big screen, makes a self-referential comment about this in a flashback memory of superhuman Dr. Manhattan at his funeral in which he suggests the idea that “it might have driven us a little crazy” if we had lost the war in viet nam, “as a country.” (which, thanks to dr. manhattan, we didn’t.)

this kind of hypothetical alternate reality is the backdrop of the story, and it’s what drives the story. as you turn the pages of the comic book, you are forced to think about alternate outcomes of historical events, and about the personification of the united states, i.e. what kind of person would the united states be if the country were a person. what would that person look like? act like? (alan moore is british.) the images in the panels in the book get burned in your memory with these ideas that the story stirs up, and it’s something that, even after the 10 years since i first read it, still lingers, fresh and raw, like a scab.

The individual comic books make up 336 pages, not including some of the supplimental extras that can be found in the graphic novel that add further backstory and articles. certainly, then, you can make a 120 minute film out of that, right?

the film fails in every way that the comic succeeds. blood, gore, violence, the slaughter of our enemies in war, the obliteration of millions of people in nuclear holocaust, these are things that, when seen in vivid painted colors on a page can be disturbing and memorable and haunting, but still just imagined pictures and thoughts. being brought to life demystifies these images. by representing them visually through high definition special effects with real actors, the very same images become farsical, unrealistic, gaudy and bad. it’s like the difference between fountains of blood in anime and the same  fountains of blood in hong kong kung-fu flicks — in anime, it visually represents the intensity of the situation and implies things that are communicated through subtext in a non-literal sense. when you add actors and fake blood and severed limbs, the whole thing looks like the black knight from monty python and the holy grail — a joke, stupid, and unrealistic. the gore and violence in the watchmen movie had the same feeling for me; lame, stupid, overdone. even as i’m watching and i know that most, if not all of these actions are mirrored almost exactly from panels in the book. the subtext, the implied message is lost in the translation when it moves from images you imagine in your mind when you read the comic to when you see it played out in vivid realism on the screen. even the sometimes two-dimensional-ness of some of the characters in the book — they’re two-dimensional because they are, in fact _two-dimensional_; images on paper with narrative and speech bubbles, you fill in the blanks with your own assumptions and feelings. in film, they’re just two-dimensional and unrealistic.

i knew, before watching, that the movie would not be as good as the comics. you sort of always know this when you go see a movie version of a book you’ve read, but you go anyway because you love the story. i knew that, even though the watchmen diehards thrashed the film, i would watch it. and i was still disappointed by the huge gaps that were missing (that can’t realistically be included in the film without causing it to span 5 or so hours), and the hollywood-ness of the action, costumes, and special effects. and i know, this is pretty much the best that a watchmen movie can get.

the books are better.  i’ll stick to the books.