Is the customer always right?
Netflix is reportedly testing a feature that will allow viewers to change the playback speed of the content they are watching, as people do can do with podcasts. The feature is being tested with a small group of Netflix customers who use Android devices, as reported in Android Police. Variable playback speed would make it possible for viewers to reduce the speed of content to 0.5x or 0.75x or accelerate the speed to 1.25x or 1.5x.
I see two big problems with variable speed:
- The feature seems counter to the Netflix brand. Netflix has attracted filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón by promoting itself as the entertainment company that respects artists with original voices. To implement such a feature without the consent of the filmmaker seems like bad business for a company that seeks to attract more creators of original content by granting them more artistic freedom than Old Hollywood studios do.
- To allow audiences to adjust movie speeds without the consent of the creator damages the integrity of the art. For example, a movie like the Academy-award winning Roma, which Netflix distributed, tells its story through quiet moments that unfold slowly. Blasting through Roma at an accelerated speed would defeat the purpose of the movie.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, I propose that Netflix launch a special “Create Your Own Experience” library where viewers are given tools to do whatever they want to movies: manipulate speeds, edit Lawrence of Arabia down to an hour, dub new dialogue into The Godfather so that Don Corleone mumbles less, insert Taylor Swift songs into the Easy Rider soundtrack, and program a Darth Vader cameo into Casablanca. Why not? The customer is always right — right?
In May, I blogged on Medium about the fan petition calling for HBO to re-do the final season of Game of Thrones. I referred to the petition as the ugly downside of consumer-driven customization, and the point applies to variable playback speed. As I noted when I discussed the Game of Thrones petition, we live at a time when we can create customized song lists and order customized wardrobes that get even more customized with the help of machine learning. We can play interactive games and watch TV shows where we choose our own narratives.
It’s one thing for the artist to participate willingly in this customization — such as giving viewers options to customize a narrative as with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. But I object to treating artists like a cafe latte that we can order to our specific liking. When the fans get exactly what we want from artists — when we dictate terms to the artist and bend them to our will — we deny ourselves the chance to be challenged by art that asks us to see the world through the viewpoint of the artist. We stop growing, and we start withering away.