On Monday, Netflix announced it was testing a new feature that, among other things, would allow mobile users to change the playback speed of content on the streaming platform. The ability to watch TV shows and movies at a slower or faster speed probably seemed like a strange niche feature to most Netflix subscribers, but the announcement drew immediate backlash from several filmmakers, including particularly vocal criticism from Judd Apatow. Apatow, who has produced and directed a number of hit comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman and created the Netflix series Love, argued that the feature was unfairly tampering with the presentation of creative work.
A Netflix spokesperson responded with an official statement, saying “We’re always experimenting with new ways to help members use Netflix. This test makes it possible to vary the speed at which people watch shows on their mobiles. As with any test, it may not become a permanent feature on Netflix.” In addition, Netflix published a blog post further explaining both the playback speed feature and the testing process in general.
The blog post, which can be read on Netflix’s website, emphasizes that the proposed feature is part of a larger array of potential features specifically for mobile users. In addition to setting playback speeds, Netflix has been testing the ability to adjust screen brightness within the Netflix app, set your screen lock orientation, and more easily adjust your audio language and subtitle settings. The post also explains that the feature has to be set each time a user begins watching a new piece of content – the player won’t remember the previous setting and will automatically begin new titles at the default normal speed. Furthermore, Netflix insists that the pitch will be adjusted for titles playing at slower or faster speeds, so nobody sounds like a chipmunk or a sleepy walrus. And finally, the streaming giant stresses that playback speeds are just a test, and that they have no plans to permanently implement the feature or expand the test to its large screen formats.
According to the blog, setting playback speed is a frequently-requested feature for mobile users. It’s worth pointing out that setting playback speeds has long been a feature on YouTube, and work-around hacks for playing iTunes content at increased or decreased speeds can be found with a simple Google search. There’s clearly some demand for this feature, but it will be up to smarter people than I to answer whether playing The 40-Year-Old Virgin at 1.5x speed despoils its artistic value.