Note: I believe this problem has been fixed now. I checked recently and the videos seem to be in the correct aspect ratio. I'll have to double check, but I think it is okay to buy them (not that I'm going to after this). Anyway, here is the rest of the document for posterity.
Why The Daily Show on iTunes is pissing me the hell off.
What's this all about?
The iTunes Music Store recently released episodes of The Daily Show (and The Colbert Report) for download as individual episodes or together in a Multi-Pass. However, the large majority of the episodes have been encoded into an incorrect aspect ratio. Most videos are shorter than they should be (they are not the correct 4x3), so the people all look squished and everything is a little off. Here are some screen shots from recent episodes, purchased through the iTunes Music Store. All of these videos were opened in QuickTime Player and displayed at the native resolution. I used the built in screen shot utility (cmd-shift-4 and then space bar) to capture the images. Note: this page looks best if your browser is over 1024 pixels wide, because then you can see all the images lined up in a row.
As you can see, the images are different heights. The source material is in the 4x3 aspect ratio, meaning the left two videos are encoded incorrectly. The only correct resolution is 320x240, but only two of the episodes released thus far have been that resolution (episodes 3 and 4, for reference).
For more evidence of the problem, take a look at the following captures. These three were captured from the three episodes shown above, respectively. I used Preview to crop to the size of the globe as best as possible (which isn't completely accurate because the globe is anti-aliased and there are no hard defined lines). The size of these globes is accurate within 1 or 2 pixels in either direction. As you can see, the one on the far left is again the most distorted and the one on the right looks like a true circle. Using just your eyes, you should be able to tell the difference.
So far I have only shown screen captures from episodes purchased from the iTunes Music Store. What if that episode was just recorded at a different aspect ratio (I'm not sure why they would keep switching between three different aspect ratios, but I'll run with it)? The website Crooks and Liars often publishes television clips relating to politics, including many from The Daily Show. I downloaded a clip from the March 30th episode of The Daily Show to compare against the version from the iTunes Music Store.
Crooks and Liars Version
Why does this matter?
When the iTunes Music Store was released nearly three years ago, Steve Jobs talked about how they would compete with the free, illegal file sharing networks. Peter Lowe sums up this sentiment, "We aim to take advantages of the weaknesses of illegal sharing services: unreliable encoding; bad connection; no previews; wrong music; no album cover art..." (emphasis mine). The iTunes Music Store was promised to provide reliably encoded files, unlike the free applications it is competing with. To date, the quality of encoded music in the iTunes Music Store has been high, but this is a black eye for the Music Store's quality.
Here's the kicker: over two years ago I was able to download (albeit illegally) each day's episode of The Daily Show. The shows would be posted very quickly, they had a high resolution, the episodes were encoded at the correct aspect ratio, there were no commercials, and they weren't C.R.A.P. encumbered.
Why are you so pissed?
I got very excited when the first episode was posted, but was disappointed when I learned it was tainted. I filed a complaint and sent a few e-mails with the hope that they'd fix it so I could buy a Multi-Pass. The third episode was encoded correctly, so I took my chance with a Multi-Pass. The fourth episode was encoded correctly, but with the fifth episode, it was once again broken. Until I was contacted by customer service, I was sending a complaint everytime my Multi-Pass downloaded an incorrectly encoded episode. Here is the conversation I had with iTunes Support.
Why should I not buy The Daily Show from iTunes Music Store?
- Incorrect aspect ratio
- No guarantee of quality
- Advertisements at the end (for The Motherload)
- Most clips are available for free from The Motherload anyway
Are you some angry Windows user?
Half right. I'm angry, but not a big Windows user. I own a PowerBook, enjoy using their software, and even hold a number of shares of AAPL stock. I've bought over a hundred dollars in music from the iTunes Music Store and so far that experience has been great. I have high expecations from Apple, so I was expected to have a great experience buying The Daily Show. When I ran into all these problems, it really disappointed me because I expect more from Apple. Note: I don't need a refund, I'd just like to see higher quality controls from Apple in the future and a fix to this problem.