Netflix’s New Playback Speed Feature Is Getting Backlash From Creators
Life comes at you fast — particularly if you’re creating shows for Netflix.
The streaming company just announced that they’re testing a feature that allows Netflix’s mobile users to speed up and slow down video content through its player. The news has raised the hackles of those who create its content — a screwball comedy plot worthy of one of the service’s low-budget, never-ending Adam Sandler movies.
In the last month, Netflix has let some users toy with how they consume content on the mobile app, including altering brightness — something that would have prevented much public outrage had Game of Thrones been streaming on the service — and the speed at which they watch content.
Netflix introduced the feature because it was “frequently requested by our members,” explained Keela Robison, Netflix’s vice president, in a statement. Robison highlighted examples of viewers wanting to do the opposite of the obvious use case — slowing down the speed of footage, in order to better understand a foreign-language film, for instance.
But the real reason Netflix viewers may want to use the feature is perhaps simpler: They’re drowning under a torrent of content they want to watch — and are likely to die before they can get round to viewing it if they stick to normal speed.
The sheer volume of content on Netflix is so great that it’s never going to be possible for the average viewer to keep up. In the last three months of 2018, Netflix added 781 hours of original content alone — enough to keep you watching until early December if you started now and didn’t sleep (which, as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once remarked, is the company’s greatest competition). And it’s going to get worse. So far, the video streaming service has released 100 seasons of local language, original scripted series from 17 separate countries. They plan to release over 130 more in 2020.
Just as we grow anxious about unfinished jobs around the house and get antsy at ballooning numbers of unread emails in our inbox, so too can we become alarmed at not getting around to the latest Netflix hit. The same psychology goes some way to explaining why we binge box sets: We’re completionists, and the idea there is a watercooler TV series we’ve not yet seen or finished irritates us. Thus we’ll take any shortcut we can — even if it means we’re not fully taking in the content.
It could help boost completion rates of individual shows and seasons more generally, by letting viewers rattle through series quickly.
But pleasing obsessive viewers comes at a cost. “Content producers will be mighty pissed off should Netflix add this as a core feature,” says Tony Gunnarsson of Ovum Research, which monitors streaming services.
Those producing shows and movies for Netflix are wary of the feature. “I don’t think it’s an ideal viewing experience, and I can’t imagine people using the feature for shows they love,” explains Matt Huether, executive producer of Degrassi: Next Class, which ran for four seasons on Netflix.
“Pace and rhythm are at the heart of TV storytelling,” says Huether. “Speeding that up will diminish the impact of the story, the moments, the jokes.”
David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, is a skeptic of Netflix’s move. “We all feel time slipping away and want to be more efficient about certain things in our lives, but zipping through art is stretching that notion to its breaking point,” he says.
That’s something that the British Academy of Film and Television Award (BAFTA) nominated director Tina Gharavi agrees with. “I think breaking the time requirement makes stories run less as time-based pieces but archives of stories,” she says. “We need time to remain constant. To retain the temporal integrity. We are not creating flipbooks. Netflix is threatening cinema. But it does mean cinemas are more relevant than ever.”
Changeable video playback speed is already the norm on YouTube, where committed users rattle through videos at double-speed — and some wish that they could speed up real life, too. Likewise, Jean-Baptiste Kempf, part of the development team of offline video player VLC Player, says that he and his team receive lots of complaints when they inadvertently break the feature — indicating it’s used widely there. Likewise, we’ve known for years that podcast aficionados race through series at a prodigious rate.
Yet if adaptable playback speeds were to become standard, Gunnarsson foresees problems for streaming services. “It would probably result in content owners adding a new clause to digital distribution contracts, to legally approve or not the use of variable playback speeds on online video players,” he says.
“And before any of that even became a standard in the industry, Netflix could be at risk for litigation, meaning that they may only run this feature on its own original content and not on third-party content. This all gets quite complicated fast.”
“This isn’t the first time that creative talent has been upset with Netflix, and it won’t be the last,” says Mike Raab of Sinai Ventures, an investment company. “Despite pushback from talent, Netflix has always put the consumer experience first, testing new product features and relying on user data to make decisions. Simply put, if users love the ability to change the speed of content, Netflix will implement it.”
So why did Netflix test the feature? Huether has a theory: It could help boost completion rates of individual shows and seasons more generally by allowing viewers to rattle through series quickly.
Netflix has tried to cool the ire of creators, saying they’ve been “sensitive” to concerns and deliberately avoided allowing speed alteration to occur on larger screens, including TVs.
Gunnarsson believes that Netflix has inadvertently hit on a hot-button issue when trialing functionality for something else. “I think this is mostly Netflix develop[ing] their video player, testing various features for what works and what doesn’t,” he says. That theory would be supported by Robison, who said in the press release, “we have no plans to roll any of these tests out in the short term. And whether we introduce these features for everyone at some point will depend on the feedback we receive.”
Still, if it were to go ahead more widely, those behind Netflix content are adamant that the change won’t affect their creative process. “It wouldn’t change how I make shows,” says Huether. “I’d just aim to keep telling stories that always have momentum, tension, and drive, so no one’s ever tempted to hit that button.”