Netflix: We’ll Leave No Codec Or Customer Behind

As the largest distributor of subscription video on demand (SVOD) movies, television and original productions in the internet streaming distribution space, Netflix must stay ahead of the latest codec advances, so its customers can receive content as its creators intended.

Bandwidth limitations is one of the biggest obstacles to accomplishing this—so much so that at times the Netflix streaming app must “down-rez” content through variable bit rate (VBR) technology. This ensures that playback is as free as possible of buffering hiccups and dropouts.

At a recent discussion with executives at Netflix, we learned that the OTT service has always employed a variety of both new and legacy digital compression codecs to help subscribers get the best possible playback on their devices.

Most recently, Netflix has said it is looking to add to its toolbox the new AV1 codec developed by the Alliance for Open Media (AOM), of which Netflix is a governing member. The new codec specification was recently released and is being touted as an alternative to the widely used  H.265/HEVC codec, and can be licensed from the AOM with no royalty payments required.

Netflix says it utilizes a deep toolbox of codecs, which can be called upon to stream compatible formats to display devices. Although Netflix continually adds new and improved codecs, it has never abandoned one—it continues to support the VC1 codec it started with in the first Netflix streaming device, a 10-year-old LG Blu-ray player.

One of the codecs that is most broadly decoded on Netflix’s subscribers’ devices today is H.264/AVC, which is used for standard and high definition video with standard dynamic range. For 4K Ultra HD content and content with high dynamic range (HDR), the primary codec used to date has been HEVC.

Alternatively, Netflix supports the profile 2 variant of VP9, although there are fewer implementations requiring that codec alone in consumer devices to date.

For the near future, Netflix says the incorporation of AV1 into the Netflix library is ongoing and a good example of how Netflix works closely with consumer electronics-manufacturer partners to figure out the best timeline for bringing it to the public through the addition to a next-generation television or playback device.

As for legacy devices, legacy video profiles will continue to be supported, so no devices or customers are left stranded by obsolescence.

Given the constant battle for bandwidth efficiency, streaming service providers must continue to work with new codecs to improve streaming efficiency, even applying newer codecs for uses with older and lower-resolution formats. It takes a lot of technical resources to constantly look for more efficient ways to deliver programming over the bandwidth-constrained internet. Netflix and other major streaming service providers have no choice but to lead the way in developing and refining all compression tools. The ever-increasing consumer appetite for watching video demands it.