Why is streaming video technology so terrible

Over media

YouTube, Netflix or ZDF: Who is the greatest internet pioneer?

The answer sounds absurd, but it really is: ZDF. The first version of its media library was put online in 2001 - four years before YouTube was even founded and six years before Netflix switched its DVD-in-envelope business to video-on-demand.

The author

Stefan Stuckmann is the author and showrunner of the ZDF series "Eichwald, MdB".

Sure: The fact that young people in Germany don't meet up for “media library and chill” on Snapchat and Tinder these days is of course primarily due to better content. But they don't seem to be quite as sleepy as the cliché suggests in Mainz. And even ARD, which only launched its media library in 2007 and thus a comfortable six years after its colleagues from ZDF, still has as many years of streaming experience as Netflix. Not bad for two broadcasters who are usually compared to authorities.

And yet: If you look around the public media libraries today, you quickly get the impression that there are people at work here who neither like the Internet, nor their content, nor their job. Poorly chosen thumbnails are lined up with unkind to meaningless teaser texts; there is no comprehensible graphic hierarchy, but various buttons, badges and overlays that are dumped in front of your feet by the dozen.

The awareness of having the last remaining straw in hand as a broadcaster in order to get people under 30 used to the nice public broadcasters seems to be missing completely. And the older ones also have a smart TV with a Netflix app at home and thus the gold standard as a comparison.

But what at first glance sounds like the logical extension of a lack of editorial passion on the Internet, has a second, much more fundamental cause on closer inspection: Not only are you not trying too hard with the broadcasters, you simply have the wrong idea about it what you are doing here at all.

Homepage frustration

The frustration of the media library visitor begins - and ARD and ZDF cleverly extend their brand core to the Internet - immediately when they switch on. And interestingly, the first stumbling block is a visual one. One of the reasons why Amazon founder Jeff Bezos started his trading empire with books was allegedly that they can be easily visualized on the Internet: In contrast to pants, shoes or groceries, you can simply scan the book cover and get an acceptable result immediately.

Anyone who now assumes that television stations that deal in nothing other than images have similar advantages when promoting their own goods has not counted on the creative will of public service online editors.

Take ARD, for example: It is a crime in itself to cover up almost 50 percent of the only visually interesting object on the entire homepage - the photo of a documentary filmmaker in Canada - with graphics and text. But the helplessness with which these two big blue buttons with turquoise-green arrows are stuck to the right and left of the photo and underlaid with huge, semicircular shadows, is worth seeing in the worst sense - just like the carefully selected stock photos below on the right mark the rubrics. It is not entirely clear why the woman behind the clapperboard in evening attire is sitting in front of a wall made of plastic film, but at least one can imagine that exactly such problems are dealt with the night before.

The symbolic photo for the “Comedy & Satire” category, on the other hand, arouses curiosity in that one wonders when was the last time an ARD comedy animated women under 30 to pose like this. After all - ARD knows its favorite genre forwards as well as backwards - the symbolic photo for the “crime thriller” category is of course handcuffs and fingerprints.

But back to the premium space on the page, and with it to the “Weltspiegel Reportage”, which is recommended to us there. The "Weltspiegel" and its reports are an established format that is well worth seeing, model television under public law. But is the word-image mark as we see it really so important and so attractive that it is paved so prominently over the mists of Canada?

And the program title within the series: "Canada". Basically nothing wrong with: Everyone likes Canada. But then you read through the preview text and find out: No, no, so not Canada per se, but just a dam in Canada. That's what it's about. So actually.

If you click on the arrow on the big shadow monster to see what else is going on in the hot rotation, you will quickly notice: the drive-by layout of the “Weltspiegel Reportage” is no exception. The very next entry recommends the Tagesschau from 5:50 p.m., and it tells you a lot about internal work processes at ARD that the ole online editors of the smart news high flyers from Hamburg do not get a version without the station logo in the corner could use it as a preview image, but apparently have to take a screenshot yourself.

No wonder that they don't feel like fast-forwarding five seconds to get an excerpt without the text belly band: You hardly see the belly band at all, after all, the preview text is in the media library over it, and it's almost not at all transparent, so really hardly.

Third example: “The young doctors”. "Egon Garowski comes to the clinic with a broken nose," reveals the teaser text, which is so important and makes you want more, because Egon Garowski is an episode role that we will never see again before or after this episode. So there is only one chance in the life of every ARD viewer to see the fictional Egon Garowski with a broken nose, and that is now and here, and it gets even better, because: "The simple operation, however, turns into a medical thriller ... “, And that is almost even more important than the fact that this is about Egon Garowski, because, honestly, how often does it happen that in a hospital series a simple procedure turns into a medical thriller, with three dots too at the end of the sentence? Almost frightening how virtuoso the ice-cold online editors play here on the click-baiting keyboard.

You can't get rid of the feeling: Somewhere on the ARD there is an Excel file with all the programs, and in this table there are any chunks of information buzzing around, none of which are irrelevant, but were mainly written for internal purposes, and then someone emails them to the online editorial team, and three minutes of copy & paste later everything is "entered" in the media library.

But well, you think, maybe this is all an ARD problem, a consequence of the evil federal structure in which a dozen online editors-in-chief stand on each other's feet. Then you look over to ZDF, not even the most streamlined of all organizations, but at least completely gathered in a few houses on a single hill, and you realize: It's just as bad there, just in a different way.

Anyone who wants to sell videos on the Internet has two options for designing their digital shop: Either the site is so flexible in terms of displaying external media such as thumbnails and teasers that it doesn't matter what they look like or what shape they are to have. Or the page is so rigid that all those who supply material have to meticulously adapt it to the design specifications of the website or app.

At ZDF, a combination of both strategies is pursued: the media library offers a rigid framework, and anyone who supplies material doesn't care at all.

This then leads, among other things, to the fact that the new episode of the quota guarantor "Wilsberg" is advertised with a photo that is 60 percent bricks and hides actor Roland Jankowsky under a black-transparent overlay that seems so important that you only fill it up to a third with text.

But at least: the title and preview text are quite useful here - apart from the apparently mandatory three points. The second play button in front of the "MünsterLeaks" is completely superfluous, it doubles with a large button right in the middle and has a questionable right to exist anyway: Would anyone be seriously surprised if he or she clicks on a program title in a media library and so that a video starts?

One tile further you can find the new episode “Maybrit Illner”, and again the preview image is similarly catastrophic: the only one who can be recognized here at first glance is the very serious-looking viewer next to the play button, while we are the actual protagonists all turn their backs or be hidden under graphics.

The note at the bottom left that the program is 60 minutes long only makes the choice of the picture more absurd: Whoever selected this particular section obviously believed that Olaf Scholz was one of the most important participants in this round - he is next Bettina Schausten, who represents Maybrit Illner in this episode, is clearly the focus of the picture. But then, thanks to the media library, exactly this Olaf Scholz disappears under the dark gray overlay.

Search frustration

Okay, so the ARD and ZDF media libraries don't have pretty start pages. For free. After all, you have a clever audience that read the newspaper diligently, follows the right people on social networks and practically knows in advance which Arthaus film was recommended by Deutschlandfunk this week. And anyway: The Internet is so messy itself, we're used to all of that - as long as there is a good search function. But the reality: unfortunately looks different. Dots, dots, dots.

Barely two weeks ago, the ARD showed the double film "Brothers" - public service premium goods, much advertised and an absolute showcase product. One would think that such films also deserve a prominent place in the media library. But if you naively type the word “Brothers” into the search engine, you get a list of 298 hits, whose best places are shared by “Die Pfefferkörner” and “Hubert und Staller”.

If you then scroll down the list, you will not only find the program you are looking for, but absurdly not even results that can be traced back to the search term “brothers”. The fourth entry is an excerpt from the program "Weltspiegel", the only additional text of which reads as follows:

There are positive signals from Ethiopia: the economy has been growing by eight to ten percent for years, the government is promoting new beginnings and prestige projects. One example is the Renaissance dam that the country is building on the Blue Nile.

It is not inconceivable that the meta tags of the database are hiding any information relevant to brothers, but: Do they really weigh more heavily than an entire film with the word "brothers" in the title? Of course not.

And as it turns out, not even the ARD search believes that. At some point, on the way back to the top of the page, you notice the two small buttons above the search results with which you can sort them: by "relevance" and by "date". And now take a quick look at the graphic: Which button is the active one? The left, gray one? Or the right, turquoise-green one?

The most interesting thing about this question is that it doesn't even have to be asked if it is well designed.

In any case, the ARD media library's search function does not sort according to relevance by default. The ZDF at least does that, but is apparently not quite clear about how exactly this relevance is specifically defined. The search for the ZDFneo series “Die Lobbyistin” actually unearths all six available episodes and even an information page that bundles all episodes, but throws them all over the place.

Much is being written about the secret Google algorithms, which, on the other hand, causes the media library software to judge episode 4 to be more relevant than episode 3, and both together to be even more relevant than the main page of the show is probably a similarly big mystery. After all: You can also sort by date, but only in descending order, so you get the episodes displayed in practically the correct order, just not exactly, namely backwards.

Wait a minute, but wasn't there some good news hidden in the text: Every program has its own subpage on which all episodes can be found? Indeed it is. Once you have decided on a program that you want to find permanently good, you have a realistic chance of completely ignoring the ugly start pages and the dysfunctional search engines. Small consolation for masochists: the undersides of the programs, they are also terrible.

Broadcast side frustration

The program page from the first for the “Vorstadtweiber” shows three photos, which surprisingly were all well selected, and offers the latest two episodes for immediate viewing. But now, at a glance: where do you have to click to get to the other episodes? On the button "Follow" of course.

One thinks. But of course not true. If you click on "Follow", you come to a dreary overview page that presents a teaser text for episode 10 - at least an episode in front the current one, which you can already watch a page in advance, so you are damn close to the series happenings.

This teaser text, however, which is difficult to beat in terms of desolation, is symptomatic of a huge misunderstanding that hovers over the fictional content of the media libraries as threateningly as the nasty semicircular shadows over the meadows of Canada: the firm belief that what the audience is because looking at everything, it has to be stored somewhere in writing, to be on the safe side. Either because you want to read again that “Caro's desire for affairs has passed after the experience with Bertram”, or because it makes you feel insane arouses curiosity that attorney Tina is “facing the greatest challenge of her career”.

ZDF does its job a bit better in terms of layout, but falls into the same trap in terms of content. On the sub-pages for series you will find circular photos that get a bit larger when you hold the mouse over them and, when you click, reveal medium-length texts that take every bit of magic that you may have felt while looking at the actual work with a sure grip Let the phrase box atomize.

So we learn on the bottom of “Zarah”, practically planned by the broadcaster as a German “Mad Men”, that the eponymous main character is “almost always under steam”, dresses “tastefully, feminine and up to date” and lives an “intense life "Leads, which is now again" a whole lot more intense ". Got pleasure?

The question now is: who cares? Hopefully people who have seen “Zarah” have been able to infer all of this information from the series itself. People who still want to see “Zarah”, on the other hand, are not helped by such helpless text templates: Tony Soprano, Don Draper and even Bojack Horseman - they did not all lead an intense life that was even more intense during the series has been?

Anyone who has anything to do with public television broadcasters at work knows how these texts are created and what they are intended for. Everything that is somehow fictional goes through years of development processes in which every catchy, concise idea has to be disguised anew month after month in one-sided, two-sided, ten-sided concepts in order to channel them through certain hierarchies. Synopsis of actions, character descriptions, short exposés, long exposés, complete apocryphal font series that tonally have nothing to do with the actual product, but only serve one thing: sales. First internally, to the editorial offices and department heads, and then externally, to the press. In this context, and only in this context, these texts are okay. On the other hand, they have no place in front of the audience.

The absurd is: With all the effort that ARD and ZDF go to to buy things online for viewers that they normally and preferably learn from the program itself, both channels forget exactly the information that you could actually find nowhere else: lists of the the film or the people involved in the series, for example. Who directed, who wrote the book, who made the camera?

Even where the media libraries actually offer added value, they stumble again due to gross ineptitude: ZDF, for example, considered accompanying its series "The Lobbyist" with two explanatory pieces on the subject of lobbying - a great idea actually, in the best sense publicly -legally. But because the preview images for both explanatory videos consist of graphical text panels, which are then overlaid by other text panels, the result is the following:

The "Zarah" makers have delivered a handful of actually well-made info clips to the station, which, in addition to conversations with actresses, also allow the team of authors and the production designer to have their say. A quick look at the thumbnails: which of the clips is about what?

It is simply not recognizable. This is also due to the completely arbitrary preview images, the interchangeable headings and the complete lack of short descriptions.

15 minutes, four screenshots and rudimentary Photoshop knowledge are enough to show what the same overview could look like instead: with thumbnails that form a logical connection with the content and information texts that concisely summarize it.

And do you notice anything else? The totally inconspicuous reference to, for example, something that has never been seen here exclusive Bonus material to do? Not a bad idea in itself, this little extra hint, if you didn't feel like adorning half of all posts with it. Of the 24 results on the first search results page for “The Lobbyist”, 14 carry a hint of exclusivity. There are entire pages in the media library where nothing Not is exclusive.

The interesting thing about the “exclusive” notice is that it is not ZDF that is speaking here, but the media library - it is not the self-produced programs that carry the notice, but the additional material to these programs. “Exclusive” in this case means: exclusively in the media library, and not linearly.

But do you have to help a medium that has the future on its side anyway with such bells and whistles? And anyway: I'm already with ZDF - isn't it a matter of course to get things from ZDF here? If I go to any restaurant that does not belong to any chain and order something to eat, that meal is strictly speaking "exclusive" - ​​the chef only cooks here and not across the street, in the neighboring town or in Mainz. Nevertheless, he does not put an orange label with the words "Exclusive" in my pasta.

Media library inflation

Now we have descended so deep and have seen such bad things: I think you are ready for a message that I withheld from you at the beginning of the text. The ARD does not only have a media library. ARD has twelve media libraries. TWELVE. One for each broadcaster, one for Deutsche Welle, one for the station “Das Erste” and one that brings it all together.

“Bundles” is the punch line. Because of course, everything goes terribly, terribly wrong. The starting point, however, couldn't be better, because the program that is hidden in these twelve different pots is worth gold when taken together.

Good example: The BR showed on November 30th. the Polanski film "The God of Carnage" and thus exactly the kind of film for which every euro broadcast fee is well spent.

And now the question: How many of the twelve media libraries can this film be found? About two: that of the Bavarian radio and that of the ARD. In all other media libraries, the film can either not be found or - even more confusing - it will be found, but only because it was available there at some point, but it is no longer available. In the first, for example, the film, we find out in the search there, ran on July 9, 2017, and because they are so generous there is at least a photo series and a short summary of the plot, but no reference to what is currently available Version at BR.

Well, from now on just take the large collective media library of the ARD, because that's where everything comes together? Have fun! Anyone who has ever moved in with someone else and has tried to transfer the respective book and CD collections into a common classification system, has an inkling of how things are going at ARD: similar, but twelve times worse and probably without any physical one Affection.

Among other things, this leads to “The God of Carnage” being discovered in the ARD's system of order as part of the program (!) “Film & Series”. All right, you think, then “Film & Series” is simply the collective category for films and series on ARD and the label “Sendung” is poorly chosen.

Are you kidding me? Are you serious when you say that! The "broadcast" entitled "Film & Serie" in the ARD media library is the pool for films and series that have recently been produced, repeated or licensed by the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation. Super easy to recognize by the two huge, high-contrast BR logos in the background of the category graphic.

Of course, the other third parties also have “programs” for films and series; But they - thanks to institutional federalism - all have their own names and labels. As a result, this box appears under the more than presentable Polanski purchase, which promises "more from the show".

"Uta Danella - The Secret of Our Love" is not a straight-to-DVD spin-off from Polanski's late work, but just a soulless television film that only lives in the same column as in the poorly maintained and apparently completely inflexible media library database the purchased Hollywood work.

Star or heart

Technically, ARD does not live completely behind the moon: If you like a film, a series or even just a news item, you can either share it with your friends using a practical row of buttons or - and this is not even available on Netflix - print it out.

ZDF is less believing in print, but especially in the social field, where it is still several years ahead of the competition even from Silicon Valley: While Twitter had its most popular content marked with asterisks for years and only recently under severe conditions Groaning switched to hearts, ZDF simply has both stars and hearts. I would have laughed too, with all the radio contributions.

The difference is super easy to remember: Asterisks are used to mark videos or episodes that you like, while hearts are used to mark pages. Because every form of moving image always appears on one page, one can express one's delight in this case twice.

With each asterisk - you understand that at some point - you mark your personal favorites in order to find them again later, with each little heart, on the other hand, your unconditional love for every possible type of content that can be found on ZDF. Really: any. With a bit of boredom and the courage to look into the abyss, you can click through to the ZDF sub-subpage with the title “Committees” and find there - you can't think of a better way - a single heart.

The basic misunderstanding

You could go on for a long time now, listing all these big and small sloppinesses and annoying yourself for hours about the lovelessness with which some great programs are thrown onto the Internet here. But the deeper you dig into the public media libraries, the more you get the feeling that another, much more fundamental thing is going wrong here.

While many of the most obvious mistakes can simply be traced back to the lack of ambition on the part of the media library makers, others of the problems listed find their cause in too big Ambition: Some of the tasks that public media libraries face are simply impossible to solve.

The ARD media library, which is supposed to bundle the entire digital program of all member stations, is perhaps the most obvious example, but not the best at all. Even the variety of content of a single linear channel like ZDF, which smoothly throws itself at the respective target group in a different way at any time of the day or night, becomes a problem at the moment when all this completely different content is in cloak one uniform media library should be offered: films, series, news, documentaries, talk shows, quiz shows, sports, regional issues - strictly speaking, all these forms have in common that things happen in front of a camera. Everything else - who appears in them, how many appear in them, whether the who is important or not, whether all of this will still be relevant tomorrow or only today, whether it is relevant everywhere or only in Northern Bavaria - differs extremely from form to form .

A good classification system is precisely tailored to the content that it is supposed to organize. A system of order like that of public law, which wants to present all these completely different forms under one roof, is doomed to failure.

Therefore, the comparison of the public media libraries with Netflix is ​​of course unfair. Because Netflix concentrates on only two forms - films and series - which are also very similar, while ZDF has to try to offer every conceivable other format with the same template. However, this is a problem that ZDF and ARD have completely caused themselves, and which, as a result, leads to a much bigger question:

What is a media library anyway?

The question is so interesting because the answer seems so obvious: We know libraries, we know video libraries - so media libraries are so similar, just more modern. Just on the internet.

This idea is deceptive because libraries and video libraries already follow two completely different paradigms. For historical reasons, libraries are usually free, publicly owned and have a general claim to content: There is a little bit of everything, more or less representative.

Video libraries, on the other hand, exist and were almost exclusively privately organized and with a smaller focus. Anyone who lived in the provinces in the 90s and wanted to see Arthaus or documentary films did not have to go to the nearest video store, but to the next big city.

An important difference that arises from the type of sponsorship - private or public - is that of the debtor: Because a video rental shop has to earn money, there is a strong incentive for its owners to not only tailor their offer as precisely as possible to the local one Tailoring demand, but also making this offer as attractive as possible. A library, on the other hand, is fortunate enough not to be financially dependent on its visitors and can therefore optimize its offerings according to other - more idealistic - criteria.

A video library that puts a little-demanded documentary film on the shelf that is only loaned out once every twelve months by the local philosophy doctoral candidate does a lot wrong. A library that does the same to rarely read but culturally important books is doing everything right.

In short: what the video library is for videos, the library is not for books, but the bookstore.

ARD and ZDF have created a similar dilemma with their media libraries. Because the media libraries as they exist now were not built to keep up with Netflix - they were built so that people who missed a program on the linear program can find it on the Internet a day later. And this basic idea (not we broadcasters have to deliver something - the viewer may get something) is the fatal design flaw in public media libraries. This basic assumption - quite understandable at the beginning of the millennium, but now completely superseded by reality - explains many of the things that make life difficult for a Netflix-spoiled customer:

  • Sorting by topicality? - Direct consequence of the orientation towards the linear program.
  • The flood of senseless labels ("Der Fernsehfilm im Erste", "Der FilmWittwoch", "MontagsKino", "Film im rbb", "Film im BR")? - Just a mirror of old thinking in broadcast slots.
  • Missing original sound? - There's never a linear one either!
  • Staff lists to read? - Pff!

Of course, it would be presumptuous to claim that everything is going wrong in the ARD and ZDF media libraries. There is a will to recognize, at least to do it differently here and there; not to leave the field to those at Netflix alone.

More and more public service series are making their internet debut - sometimes just hours before the linear broadcast, but at least. Some of them are even put completely online - with all the episodes long before they are shown on linear television. And recently, after the call for a soundtrack for the series "Zarah" got louder and louder in social networks, someone actually sat down and entered a song list on the program page - only as a PDF and not up-to-date as a playlist for Spotify and Apple Music, but after all.

But despite everything: Even the most motivated online editors cannot do a good job if they work in the wrong structure.

So what should be done differently? Three things are close:

  • ARD and ZDF should rethink their media libraries from scratch - with a different paradigm: the media library as a sales room, not as a city library.
  • Both broadcasters should set up their own media libraries for films and series on the one hand and news, shows and other current programs on the other, which are only optimized for this content.
  • Media libraries should be thought of more as an independent unit, including their own editors, authors and graphic designers. Concise preview text and images are too important to treat as a mere sideshow.

ARD and ZDF think their media libraries are the future, but in their current form both are much more oriented towards linear television than the streaming business. And admittedly: Organizing things on the Internet is so difficult that on the one hand hardly anyone can do it properly, and on the other hand the few who manage it every now and then get filth rich from it. Google, Facebook, Amazon - each of these companies deals with very different things, but they all have one fundamental thing in common: that they curate a seemingly infinite number of objects and thus make them accessible in the first place.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole debate as a luxury problem, rather than complaining about the superficial at a time when completely different things are much more important. But that is precisely the core of the whole debate about fake news, the lying press and filter bubbles: never before in the history of mass media has there been a similar inflation of content, but never before has there been a greater concentration of platforms that deliver the majority of this content to consumers to distribute. If public service broadcasting does not manage to defend its rightful place in people's attention with its media libraries, then in a few years ugly buttons, bad thumbnails or the exact amount of cents for the increase in broadcasting fees will suddenly be discussed everything - basically.