Netflix’s fast-forward viewing feature: you wouldn’t listen to Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ on fast forward, so why watch ‘The Irishman’ that way?

Netflix is trialling a function that allows time-poor viewers to speed-watch shows. Hannah Woodhead says the focus should be on better content, not faster content

As Ferris Bueller once said during his infamous Day Off, “Live moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

In this hyper-connected age we live in, we move pretty fast too. As such, it’s no surprise we’re constantly looking for new innovations which might make our lives easier, and companies are keen to cash-in on our craving for convenience. Netflix is arguably one of the greatest success stories of the millennium, revolutionising the way we watch television and film in our homes. Now they’re looking to change the way we watch in a different way: by giving us command over the playback speed, allowing audiences to view media slower or faster than originally intended.

In the constant (and tiresome) argument about home viewing versus cinema, Netflix is increasingly trying to cater to all audiences by showing some of their prestige films for a limited time in brick-and-mortar theatres, before they go live on their content platform, but ultimately, their current remit is to gain subscribers rather than send people to cinemas. As such, they want to make their platform as enticing as possible, offering content and features others don’t. Now they’re competing with the likes of Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV and other streaming platforms, it’s vital to innovate.

The feature already exists in some media players and on Youtube, but Netflix’s proposal to add it to their streaming platform marks a first for a streaming network. Already available for Android mobile devices, it allows viewers to set playback to 0.5x or 0.75x, or raise it to 1.25x or 1.5x, effectively slowing down or speeding up the action. Several directors have already expressed their anger about the move, including Judd Apatow and Brad Bird, while others have mixed feelings on the subject: film critic Matt Zoller Seitz suggests the fast forward has time-saving potential for busy viewers.

Apatow and Bird cite artistic intention as a reason for dumping the feature. Filmmakers create work meticulously, and expect viewers to watch it in as close-to-ideal circumstances as possible. Messing with the playback speed, for them, is an affront to directorial intent.

But how much can a director truly control a film after it’s released? Plenty of people willingly admit to watching low quality camera rips of new releases on dodgy pirate websites. Initial reluctance to people watching films on their mobile phones has been replaced by general acceptance. 

“For those with sensory processing disorders, being able to slow the speed at which they watch something might actually improve their access to films and television”

So the addition of this nifty new feature might not seem so significant – after all, if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to, and in actuality, there’s a sensible use of the tech from an accessibility point of view. For those with sensory processing disorders or other disabilities, or even for those who don’t have English as a first language, being able to slow the speed at which they watch something might actually improve their access to films and television.

But in the age of the binge watch, we’re constantly being force-fed content from every direction. The second you finish a film or television show on streaming, an advert for another pops up. The autoplay gap between episodes is even shorter – you can even skip the opening credits if you want.

You know how casinos are designed with no natural light or clocks on the walls so you spend more time there because you lose all sense of how long it’s been? Netflix operates in a similar way. They want you to keep watching, keep consuming content. The addition of a fast-forward feature suggests Netflix aren’t actually interested in whether or not viewers are really engaging with the content they’re watching; just as long as it appears that way. 

A fast-forward button doesn’t solve the wider problem plaguing pop culture: a general lack of curation. There’s more film and television out there than ever, but knowing what’s worth your time can be difficult, especially when presented with a huge menu on the homepage when you log in. Algorithms still aren’t a perfect science, and sometimes you can stare at the ‘Now Playing’ list for an hour before deciding to give up and watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for the fiftieth time. It’s harder than ever to wade through the noise, be it as an artist or an audience member.

The comparison with music is laughable: you wouldn’t listen to Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ on fast forward, so why watch Taxi Driver or The Godfather in the same way? Yet this speaks to how we receive different mediums; music as an artform perhaps requires less legwork on our part, as we can generally afford a few minutes to listen to a new song, or pop a new album on while we make dinner or clean the house.

“A fast-forward button doesn’t solve the wider problem plaguing pop culture: a general lack of curation”

It’s much harder to do the same with television or film that we haven’t seen before, as their visual quality inherently requires more attention from us. But perhaps it’s also a lot easier to discover new music; music journalism is still a strong pathway to new bands, and Spotify seems to have more success suggesting artists based on your pre existing interests than Netflix does.

Ultimately the playback feature Netflix are trialing is just an experiment, and a lot of people are up in arms over something that likely won’t ever be fully-implemented. But that we’re even having the conversation at all speaks to the overwhelming nature of streaming: all this content, with no logical order.

The key to being a more satisfied and engaged viewer isn’t watching The Irishman in 2.6 hours instead of 3.5; it’s platforms better understanding who their viewers are, and us lowly customers actually being a bit kinder to ourselves. That means taking a deep breath and setting time aside to actually connect with art, rather than gulping it down all at once and then moving on to the next thing that grabs our attention. To end on another quote – this time from Billy Joel, as featured in Netflix’s The Politician: “Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? / You’d better cool it off before you burn it out.”