Kevin Spacey as U.S. Congressman Frank Underwood in a scene from the first season of the Netflix original series, "House of Cards."
Melinda Sue Gordon—AP
By Victor Luckerson
December 15, 2015

Over the years, the “buffering” screen has been one of Netflix’s greatest enemies. Now the company is planning to roll out new technology that will improve the streaming quality of its movies and TV shows, while also conserving precious bandwidth.

In an in-depth Variety feature, Netflix executives detailed a yearslong campaign to revamp the encoding technology they use to determine what image quality is used to stream movies and shows. In the past, Netflix selected a certain bitrate for all titles based on customers’ available bandwidth.

But the company realized that different movies have different bandwidth needs. A customer that doesn’t have a speedy enough connection to stream The Avengers at 1080p might still be able to stream My Little Pony, which is less visually complex, in high-definition.

Going forward, Netflix will encode each movie and television episode at a unique bitrate, so even users with slower connections should be able to stream certain shows with high image quality. The shift will help customers stream using as much as 20% less data, Variety estimates. Netflix hopes to fully implement the change by the end of Q1 2016.

The improved streaming tech will provide Netflix many strategic benefits. The company accounts for more than a third of all Internet traffic during peak hours. It’s now paying Internet Service Providers like Comcast a fee to carry its streaming data to customers. Any change that makes Netflix less of a bandwidth hog could save the company money in the long run. Shrinking its video content could also help Netflix convince users to stream on mobile devices, where they are more conscious about data usage, or in developing markets where high-speed Internet isn’t as common.

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