Who’s the Real Director? Why Netflix Wants to Let You Control Playback Speed

This past summer, The Verge reported that Netflix was experimenting with giving people the ability to control the playback of any show or film — from 0.5x slower to 1.5x faster. While Netflix was testing the feature primarily on Android mobile devices, the feature is now being spotted on desktops across the country.

The creative community has been pushing back since the rumors began. Judd Apatow, an outspoken critic, replied to the early headlines, “Distributors don’t get to change the way the content is presented. Doing so is a breaking of trust and won’t be tolerated by the people who provide it.” He added, “Don’t make me have to call every director and show creator on Earth to fight you on this. Save me the time.”

Aaron Paul also joined early, tweeting, “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. Am I right Netflix? I love Netflix. Always have. Always will. This simply can not be true.”

It is.

Paul’s tweet is now unavailable, and close to 195 million Netflix subscribers will soon be getting a taste of this control.

In a 2019 statement from Netflix, Keela Robison, VP of product innovation, justified the test: “It’s a feature that has long been available on DVD players — and has been frequently requested by our members. For example, people looking to rewatch their favorite scene or wanting to go slower because it’s a foreign language title.”

The moment when DVD speed control was introduced is different than our present moment with Netflix. Culture changes. We’re in a market landscape where Netflix infamously “competes with sleep” in addition to HBO, Hulu, Apple, and Disney. This change is about being able to better understand a foreign film as much as it’s about crunching more consumption numbers for shareholders. “Are you still watching?”

How do you increase viewership metrics quarter over quarter, year over year? Approaching the equation by attempting to increase subscribers is myopic. Saturation is tough. You also can’t increase the time frame for people to watch Netflix; there are only so many hours in the day. But what you can do and what Netflix has done is shrink the content to fit more of it within subscribers’ existing time frames. The same timespan each night but more content watched — all without growing subscription numbers.

Netflix is signaling: Consumption volume is prioritized over artistic intent. Where metrics were once leveraged to understand the resonance of a piece of work, we’re now solely optimizing for the metrics themselves, forgetting why we’re here. We’re undermining the material for stats. Have we really experienced the work, or have we merely seen it?

For Team Human, author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff writes, “Any art that asks its viewers to slow down or, worse, pause and reflect is hurting a market that depends on automatic and accelerating behaviors.” Netflix doesn’t want to play in the slow and ambiguous space. But for the creatives, it’s the deal with the devil.

The distributor, Netflix, now controls the priority: numbers over art. This means Netflix also controls the watch experience — or at least empowers viewers to control their own watch experience, which may be different than what was intended. Fairly, who are we to make such directorial decisions over Apatow, the creator? If he wanted a shorter film, his editors would have made a shorter film. And as any fan knows, that’s not what Apatow wants.

The trigger for all is that we’re beginning to widely remix an established and sacred medium: film. The chaotic spirit of TikTok is getting mapped onto the nearly 100-year-old Motion Picture Association. Or better yet, YouTube’s existing playback controls can now be applied to a Best Picture.

Power dynamics are changing. The crowd now determines if Sonic the Hedgehog gets reanimated or which actors get canceled. Further, with the pandemic, films like Wonder Woman 1984 are bypassing bottleneck theaters and hitting laptops first. In this relationship, it means you get to decide how you want to view the blockbuster: on your iPhone or at 1.5x the speed. After all, you’re the one paying. No one needs to flash their B.A. in cinematic arts from the University of Southern California to sign up for Netflix.

Defenders of the playback speed feature flaunt the benefits for the deaf and blind communities in addition to many others requiring such accessibility options. Longer time to read subtitles or quickened audio for those who can’t see well allows freedom. It’s applaudable and overdue. But can this truly be the fundamental motivator? Netflix wouldn’t have first tested on Android but first fostered a PR-worthy partnership with the American Council of the Blind. Or at least that’s how they should have framed it.

This feature also signals what television’s role is in the zeitgeist. Markets once proclaimed the arrival of “second screen viewing,” where phone screens accompanied the big screen and acted as the outlet for Twitter reactions and live group chats. However, there’s been another reversal. The TV is now the second screen. The real attention is on the phone: TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube are the foreground. Netflix’s Emily in Paris, dubbed “ambient TV,” runs in the background. Many approach their Netflix shows as they would a digital yule log, a calming stream of colors and sounds to fill the void.

“At its core, ambient TV is about modulating our split attention,” says Sean Monahan, founder of the new trend consultancy 8Ball and formerly of K-HOLE. “Speeding up certain content for focused turbo-ingestion or lowering the complexity of plot so it can be more ambient background noise are two sides of the same coin. Split attention isn’t only a workplace problem. We also multitask while we consume entertainment.”

Our debate shouldn’t be about the speed and length of an Apatow film but what ambient TV and a speed feature symbolize: our content glut and how we can’t seem to escape it. Every nook and cranny is filled with content. We multiply our screens to get through.

Entertainment — or, even better, art — is now framed as a task to complete hastily, defeating its primary purpose: timeless escape. Our watchlists have become Sisyphean. There is no progress. Yet there’s still a mirage of completion. Our new 1.5x speed can get us there. Or so we hope.

What we need is a movement, a figure or organization, to declare: We don’t need to watch, read, or listen to it all. This is that early and modest rallying call.

We are suffocating in content, all competing for our attention — family, friends, and co-workers meanwhile attempt to prioritize the list on our behalf, only making it worse. Completed content has become our all-access social pass. Your opportunities for conversation accumulate as the hours you sleep shrink.

But are we watching because we want to or because we feel compelled to?

If we’re watching at 1.5x speed, missing nuance and timing all while disrespecting the creator, perhaps we truly don’t want to.