OK, so give Netflix credit -- it pioneered DVD movie rentals by mail, then morphed itself into the top video-streaming service, it's adding original content faster than anybody and laying out big bucks to license more content.
But none of that does much good if the video streaming works poorly or not at all, as seems to be the case for a growing number of consumers.
"I hate that every five minutes or so it stops! I have to reload it at least five times while watching something," said one angry viewer in a ConsumerAffairs post.
Ffion of Flintshire, UK, has the same gripe: "We are in the middle of watching a film and it freezes and doesn't load. It's not just one film, but lots. It's very annoying and loses the place you are at by skipping parts you haven't watched, or rewinding and replaying parts we have."
The complaints come from far and wide, not just from isolated hamlets where one might expect Internet connectivity to be on the slow side. We were reminded of this just the other night when, like everyone else in the Washington, D.C., area, we tried to watch "House of Cards," the original Netflix production that shows the seamier side of D.C. (as opposed to the shiny side).
It began loading normally on our superfast FiOS connection (which normally tests out around 35 Mbps), showing an initial speed of 18.1 Mbps. But a few minutes into the first episode, as Kevin Spacey uttered one of his many asides, the image froze, and stayed frozen for a solid six minutes. This happened repeatedly and, after awhile, began to become tiresome.
Everything else worked
Admittedly, "House of Cards" was quite a hit around the country, not just in D.C., so we initially wrote it off to too many Congressmen sitting with a bourbon bottle in front of the TV that night. In frustration, we flipped over to Amazon Prime and watched "The Lincoln Lawyer" without a blip. Just the way Amazon used to work.
In the next room, CNN was yakking away normally on a second TV, upstairs Los Angeles' KUSC-FM was playing normally via the Internet and across the room from the faltering screen displaying Netflix, my laptop was working perfectly as I skimmed through the ConsumerAffairs database, looking at hundreds of Netflix complaints -- all this on the same FiOS connection.
Technically, it's no small feat to serve individual video streams to millions of users but that doesn't mean that it's OK for it not to work. Customers are paying for streaming video and it's streaming video they ought to get. If there are problems, Netflix should admit they exist, fix them and, maybe just maybe, offer refunds to those who did not get the service they are paying for.
There was a time not long ago when Netflix sent me an email each time I watched a streaming video selection, asking me to rate the quality of the transmission. It was always perfect.
Now that it is seldom perfect, I no longer get the email surveys. Even more baffling, I emailed the Netflix public relations department to ask about the streaming issues and got zero in the way of replies -- not even an acknowledgement of my inquiry. It's kind of typical for big companies to boast about their accomplishments while stiffing anyone who asks about their problems, but that doesn't make it acceptable.
It's not just pesky consumer reporters who get short shrift, customers say they don't get very far either when they try to report a problem.
"When you try to contact customer service, they simply try to blame the Roku box (which is what we stream on) or they say they are 'working on it,'" said a consumer in Hawaii. "I just had a chat session where I complained about the streaming being frozen, and the lady told me that the issue was cleared up yesterday, so that it must be my Roku."
A few minutes later, the customer service person said she had been "resolving this issue all day," the consumer said. "Wait a minute, didn't she just tell me that the issues were all cleared up since yesterday? Yeah, so they clearly have geniuses working the chat lines for customer service."
What to do
So what's a consumer to do? Well, although Netflix could make it a bit more obvious, there is a way to report problems with video streaming.
Log into Netflix and click the "Your Account" button in the upper right. Then under "Your Streaming Plan," click on "See Instant Watching Activity." This will produce a list of your recent viewings, with a "Report Problems" link for each item.
Whether reporting the problem will accomplish anything is hard to say, but it can't hurt.
It's also a good idea, once again under "Your Streaming Account," to click the "Manage Video Quality" link and choose the download speed that best matches your Internet connection. Choose "Good" if you have a DSL or other slow-as-mud connection, "Better" or "Best" for cable-quality or FiOS accounts.
Netflix does have a support page that discusses streaming problems, although we found it by accident through a search engine, not through the navigation on the Netflix site. It's at http://support.netflix.com/en/node/230#gsc.tab=0 Some of these tips might help but when other streaming services, like Amazon, work pefectly while Netflix falters, that would seem to rule out most problems on the consumer's end.
But not everyone's having problems. We heard from Lola of Lima, Peru, who said: "Mmm...we just finished watching House of Cards and had very few problems. Loved the series, btw."