Speeding up podcasts saved these customers 2,849 years of listening since 2015 — why it won’t work for Netflix movies

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Modern media consumption is increasingly compressed for time, but not everyone is on board.

For some podcast and video aficionados, the option to tinker with playback speed means the ability to devour large quantities of information in less time. For some creators, however, it voids the effort and artistry they poured into a project.

Netflix NFLX, -0.21%   last week confirmed a report that it was testing a feature to allow users to vary playback speed on mobile devices, with options for 0.5x, 0.75x, 1.25x and 1.5x regular speed. Such a feature has “long been available on DVD players,” the streaming giant said, and is “frequently requested” by users for purposes like slowing down a foreign film or rewatching favorite scenes.

The tests, first reported by the blog Android Police, had drawn strong pushback from celebrities like Aaron Paul, who stars in Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and “El Camino,” and Judd Apatow, who co-created the Netflix show “Love.” “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,” Paul tweeted TWTR, -1.17%.

Amid the uproar, a blog post by Netflix vice president Keela Robison pointed out that bigger screens weren’t included in this “mobile-only test,” and that viewers would need to opt in to vary playback speed every time they watched a new selection.

“We have no plans to roll any of these tests out in the short term,” Robison added. “And whether we introduce these features for everyone at some point will depend on the feedback we receive.”

A Netflix spokeswoman told MarketWatch the company had no additional comment.

The idea of speeding up video had taken hold before Netflix stirred up controversy — in GOOGL, +1.07% GOOG, +1.08%  playback speed options (ranging from 0.25x to 2x), for example, or in one former Washington Post reporter’s penchant for playing narrative shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” at higher speeds and jumping around programs in a nonlinear fashion.

“I confess these new viewing techniques have done something strange to my sense of reality. I can’t watch television in real-time anymore,” wrote Jeff Guo in 2016. “Movie theaters feel suffocating. I need to be able to fast-forward and rewind and accelerate and slow down, to be able to parcel my attention where it’s needed.” (After someone resurfaced his piece in light of the Netflix news, Guo tweeted, “I still stand by this!”)

In some cases, TV consumers are already experiencing slightly faster playback without even realizing it: Several cable networks have employed compression technology to cram in more commercials, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015.

Audible AMZN, +0.83%   has highlighted the trend of speed-listening to audiobooks. BuzzFeed in 2017 also dug into the phenomenon of “podfasters,” or people who tear through podcasts at up to twice or thrice their normal playback speed.

The podcast player Pocket Casts, which offers variable playback speeds ranging from 0.5x to 3x, estimates the feature has saved its listeners a cumulative 2,849 years since 2015, according to CEO Owen Grover, though a spokeswoman declined to provide specific subscriber numbers. The app also offers a feature to trim silence.

These features are “well-used and broadly used,” Grover told MarketWatch. Users are most likely to speed up podcasts in the news and current events genre, he said; some have even requested higher-speed options than 3x. Why the rush? For starters, “time is a precious and valuable resource,” Grover said. And some podcast listeners feel a sense of commitment and ritual about finishing their podcasts.

“People feel very strongly about staying on top of their subscriptions — it’s a point of pride for them, in some instances, and they want to burn though their shows,” he said. “For some people, getting through the episodes is a big, important part of their week.”

Grover acknowledged tradeoffs that could come with zipping through carefully produced, nuanced narrative podcasts. “But if you’ve got a 25-minute commute and a 35-minute podcast,” he said, “you do what you gotta do.”

Just 2.3% of people who use Castbox, another podcast player, speed up their podcasts, a spokesman told MarketWatch; only 10% of those users boost playback speed beyond 2x. In an emailed statement, Castbox CEO Renee Wang said she could appreciate Netflix’s consideration of new ways to consume content, but predicted that a majority of users would prefer sticking to the default speed.

“While podcast apps already offer what Netflix is testing, audio and video are two different mediums with different user habits,” Wang said. “Most people are on Netflix for entertainment — to sit back and enjoy their favorite shows and movies. Podcast and audiobook listeners also want to be entertained, but many of them look to this kind of content to learn and absorb information quickly.”

People can listen to audio sped up to about 1.5x without losing too much in the way of comprehension, according to Ray Pastore, an assistant professor of instructional technology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. After that threshold, “comprehension starts to go down significantly.” People tend to prefer a speed of around 1.25x, according to his research.

Including a video component would actually aid in comprehension, even at 1.5x speed, since visual and auditory information complement each other, Pastore added.

A person’s ability to process information will depend on both the complexity of the information and his or her existing knowledge of the topic, said Maximilian Riesenhuber, a Georgetown University neuroscience professor.

“Some people process information more quickly, others more slowly,” Riesenhuber said. “People with cognitive difficulties, they could be greatly helped with being able to slow down. Others more pressed for time have more ability to watch the movie in a shorter period of time.”

The potential Netflix feature might be best suited toward educational material like documentaries, Pastore said — and even then, only a certain proportion of viewers would opt in. After all, speeding up a dramatic film could cause viewers to miss important visual cues on-screen, he said.

Odd timing could throw off a standup comic’s set. Even certain lines may not land as intended with a pacing change: Pastore questioned whether Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” would have been as catchphrase-worthy at 1.5x.

“If you speed up a movie, it’s a different movie,” agreed Michael Grabowski, a Manhattan College associate professor of communication whose research interests include neuroscience. “It certainly is a different movie than what the filmmaker intended you to see. If they wanted you to see a faster movie, they would have sped up the movie themselves.”

Still, “platforms have to be user-focused,” said Grover, the CEO of Pocket Casts. And with so many shows, films and podcasts competing for people’s precious hours, “any platform that’s thinking about ways to allow users to make the most of their time is thinking about it the right way.”

“Having options,” Riesenhuber added, “is always a good idea.”