How much does picture quality cost?

At a recent event, I watched a demonstration of a new video delivery service. On a large flat screen, highly compressed video showed all the usual artifacts of low bit-rate MPEG. When I questioned the quality, I was told that the public doesn't notice. I got to thinking: Is there a relationship between what viewers will pay for content and what video quality they will accept?

The mental equation that estimates the price someone will pay to view is complex. A visit to the cinema is more than a movie; it can be a shared experience with friends, a night out. But how many cinema-goers seek out a 70mm print against 35mm? Does the type of sound system in the theatre attract an audience? We pay for a cinema ticket, not just for the large-screen experience, but for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is because it is a new release, and the only way to join in watercooler discussions about a new movie is to see it at a cinema.

Once a movie is released to other formats, the price and quality issue becomes more important. There is anecdotal evidence from DTV broadcasters that the public is aware of compression artifacts, especially for subscription services. The public has quality benchmarks — the DVD being one. As HDTV and DVDs become commonplace — and now that game consoles offer HD graphics — perceptions of quality can only increase.

The consumers purchasing large flat screens and home theatre systems may be buying them to impress the neighbors. But they could equally be buying them because they want a high-quality viewing experience at home.

Where does this leave low bit-rate services? I'm sure it depends on the price. Who will pay as much as a DVD rental for an overcompressed video clip? There is the convenience factor. It's immediate; there's no need to get the car out. But what does 1Mb MPEG look like blown up on an HD display? Pretty bad, I think.

In the UK, the BBC is planning to launch a browser-based player for VOD over the public Internet. Quality expectations may be lower in this case, as there is no charge for viewing. Instead revenue comes from a receiver tax. Time will tell how successful this service will be.

A major issue with such products could be quality of service. The Internet is not designed for large numbers of live video streams, and this could be the straw to break the camel's back. Proper VOD networks are designed to deliver a good QoS within the closed system, but this is reflected in the subscription charge or PPV price.

Many in the Web community have proposed peer-to-peer as the solution to Internet congestion, but it is not without problems. Local ends are usually asymmetric, and most ISPs stipulate that domestic users cannot run servers. Peer-to-peer has unhealthy links with content piracy and can represent security risks to users who have to run the peer services on their own machines.

There is a hierarchy of service qualities developing. Unlike analog television, compression means that the screw can be tightened until the consumers desert. For incumbents and new entrants to the content distribution business, setting the price versus quality parameters is going to have a marked effect on the success of their service. In a fast-moving world, the bar is being raised by digital cinema. With stunning images and sound, the public's expectations of quality will be lifted yet further.

I have faith that the public wants high-quality programs and high-quality pictures. Lower technical quality will only be accepted where it's appropriate — in wireless and mobile applications, and for niche services.

Send comments