Last last week, news broke that Netflix was quietly testing a new feature that would let Android mobile users alter the play speed of the shows and films they were watching. Users could speed up a show so that it played 1.5x faster than intended, or slow it down to half-speed. It was a small test, but that meant Netflix was considering implementing this on a wider scale at some point in the future.

The reaction to the news was negative enough — including from filmmakers like Judd Apatow, who tweeted “We give you nice things. Leave them as they were intended to be seen.” — that the company responded with a brief blog post explaining more about the test. Written by Netflix Vice President Keela Robison, it explains this is a “mobile only test” of a feature “that has long been available on DVD players - and has been frequently requested by our members.”

The sample interface they provided (seen above) lets users change their phone’s play speed by opening a menu and clicking on the speed they want. More, from Robison’s blog post:

We’ve been sensitive to creator concerns and haven’t included bigger screens, in particular TVs, in this test. We’ve also automatically corrected the pitch in the audio at faster and slower speeds. In addition, members must choose to vary the speed each time they watch something new - versus Netflix maintaining their settings based on their last choice.

This paragraph seems designed to reassure filmmakers like Apatow that their work will remain unchanged on big screens even if the feature is added to phones, but I’m honestly not sure why they would be okay with that. I guess if you’ve already resigned yourself to the fact that your work will be viewed on a 4-inch screen by a man dozing on the subway, then maybe you’d just accept that they might also play it really fast to get through it before the end of their commute? Like “You’ve accepted the bargain that the viewing conditions here suck, so what’s one more way that they suck?”

I guess some DVD players do include these functions (my personal player at home lets you watch slower but you can only fast-forward at 10x speed, which doesn’t really let you “watch” a movie as you do it). And I can see why viewers would want some flexibility in play speed — just as I can see why some filmmakers would not want it. It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried issue.

I’m all for having the ability to slow something down to look really closely at it. Especially in my line of work, that’s an incredibly useful feature. On the other hand, speeding it up but only a little doesn’t seem to serve much practical or educational purpose. All that does is invite people to “watch” things with less engagement and attention and commitment than the material probably demands. No wonder folks like Judd Apatow are pissed off.

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