Written by Jonah Engel Bromwich
Netflix has confirmed and also downplayed a report that it is testing a feature on cellphones that allows users to speed up (or slow down) its videos.
It has become standard to accelerate podcasts and videos, including on YouTube. But it’s one thing to listen to a podcast like Fantasy Focus Football at double speed, and another to brute force your way through Russian Doll.
And, unlike your local podcaster, Netflix has relationships to maintain with the showrunners, directors, writers and actors that it has won over to its platform. (On Tuesday, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said that they would step away from their deal to work on Star Wars because of their commitment to working with Netflix.)
Some of those people are unhappy at the news. Director and producer Judd Apatow and actor Aaron Paul, both of whom have worked with Netflix on multiple projects, expressed dismay.
Apatow tweeted at Netflix: “Don’t make me have to call every director and show creator on Earth to fight you on this. Save me the time. I will win but it will take a ton of time.”
Paul tweeted: “There is NO WAY Netflix will move forward with this. That would mean they are completely taking control of everyone else’s art and destroying it. Netflix is far better than that.” He added: “Am I right Netflix?”
I am honestly praising @Netflix as a company. Don’t listen to the media. Rumors are a funny thing. I love Netflix. Always have. Always will. This simply can not be true. That is all. No way will they destroy the art they have on their platform. Plain and simple. 🎥 https://t.co/uvxWMpeqhx
— Aaron Paul (@aaronpaul_8) October 28, 2019
Netflix’s Twitter account did not respond to either man.
Speeding It All Up
Way back in December 2001, Joel Galbraith, who helped faculty at Brigham Young University design their courses, surveyed 256 accounting students who had opted to watch lectures at double time. Ninety-six percent were enthusiastic fans of the feature, he found.
In 2017, BuzzFeed reported on a group of podcast listeners it called “podfasters,” who listened to sped-up podcasts and gobbled far more content than the average listener.
Speedy listening can help combat bloat. It makes particular sense when watching the endless vlogs of YouTubers who tend to extend videos beyond the 10 minute mark, allowing them an extra advertising break and a chance to make more money. YouTube introduced the feature on the web more than five years ago, and on mobile in 2017.
Fennel Aurora, a cybersecurity researcher in his late 30s, said that in the past several years he has started speeding up the YouTube lectures he watches on subjects including world history, philosophy and biology to twice the normal speed.
“Otherwise it’s too boring or easy to get distracted,” he said. Asked if he was concerned about missing information, he said that watching the videos quickly helped him absorb more: “Because of the speed, you’re forced to concentrate.”
But young people do not use the feature — formally known as variable speed playback — just for educational purposes. Katherine Philpott, a 20-year-old student in London, said that she sped up almost every video she watched.
“Some videos are dragged out so much, and they speak so slow,” she said. “My brain likes the information quicker.”
There was one category of video she doesn’t speed up: ASMR. (These videos are intended to trigger “autonomous sensory meridian response” or at least a sense of relaxation, and often consist of whispers and quiet sounds.)
Who Does Netflix Serve?
Netflix on Monday posted an explanation of the new feature in its media centre, confirming that it was testing the feature on Android phones and acknowledging the feedback.
“This is a mobile only test and gives people the ability to vary the speed at which they watch on phones or tablets — choosing from normal to slower (0.5X or 0.75X) or faster (1.25X and 1.5X),” the statement said. “It’s a feature that has long been available on DVD players — and has been frequently requested by our members.”
But Netflix also acknowledged what it called “creator concerns,” and pointed out that it hasn’t tested the feature on bigger screens (and that it had tried to automatically correct audio pitch).
As Netflix has increasingly become home for original content made by Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Murphy, Steven Soderbergh and also many, many Adam Sandler movies, it has had to weigh the desires of its user base against those of the artists to whom it pays big money.
Other streaming websites have made their own choices. While YouTube lets its users stream any video at the desired speed, Vimeo, which bills itself as more creator focused, has handed over the controls to those who make the videos.
“There are reasons why a creator may want to grant their audiences the ability to control the speed on their videos,” said Mark Kornfilt, the chief technical officer of Vimeo, in an email. “We see those use cases on our platform and we built speed control functionality for creators to opt into, should they choose.”
Netflix declined to comment on whether it would consider doing the same. It ended its Monday statement on an ambiguous note. “Whether we introduce these features for everyone at some point will depend on the feedback we receive,” it said.