Automatic for the People: Why Netflix Is at the Center of a Fight Between Artists and Audiences

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@davidjdealDavid Deal

David Deal is a marketing executive, digital junkie, and pop culture lover.

Netflix may well be a haven for original voices in filmmaking. But recently Netflix also alienated artists by testing a feature that would allow viewers to adjust the playback speed of the content they watch. As first reported in Android Police, the feature, known as variable playback speed, is being tested with a small group of Netflix customers who use Android devices. 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.
Why would Netflix experiment with variable playback speed? Well, the idea is to give customers more control over their entertainment experience by allowing them to adjust the pace of the content (a capability that is popular with podcast listeners), which is especially appealing for people who experience Netflix on the go with their mobile devices.

Artists Revolt

But the notion hasn’t gone over well with some notable artists. Just to cite a few noteworthy reactions from the twitterverse:
  • Judd Apatow tweeted, “No @Netflix no. Don’t make me have to call every director and show creator on Earth to fight you on this. Save me the time. I will win but it will take a ton of time. Don’t f— with our timing. We give you nice things. Leave them as they were intended to be seen.”
  • Brad Bird tweeted, “Whelp— another spectacularly bad idea, and another cut to the already bleeding-out cinema experience. Why support & finance filmmakers visions on one hand and then work to destroy the presentation of those films on the other???” 
    You get the idea. It’s like Netflix just launched a new program playing out on Twitter feed, Artists at War with Technology.

Netflix Responds

Netflix took the complaints in stride. Keela Robinson, vice president, responded via a blog post as follows:
It’s a feature that has long been available on DVD players - and has been frequently requested by our members. For example, people looking to rewatch their favorite scene or wanting to go slower because it’s a foreign language title. 
And there it is, the refrain of the digital age: give the people what they want. Netflix wants to use technology to empower its customers to customize their experience. But the artists want to keep control of their content.

A Sign of the Times

Netflix reflects the current commercial and cultural zeitgeist. The self-described world's leading internet entertainment service flourishes at a time when businesses across multiple industries use technology to empower consumers through personalization and customization. 
Spotify, for example, has mastered the use of artificial intelligence to personalize content, or recommend music without altering the song itself. In fact, Spotify is so good at personalization that its customers discover songs and artists they did not know about. AI helps Spotify analyzes its customers’ habits and expand their horizons. Of course, personalization is not new. But with AI, businesses ranging from Amazon to Stitch Fix are taking personalization to a level where the customer can passively allow the algorithm to cater to their every possible taste, and then some. 
Netflix uses technology to personalize and customize visual storytelling. Netflix uses AI to make viewing recommendations personalized to the audience based on their viewing tastes. Netflix also allows the audience to customize how they watch content. Binge watching, made popular on Netflix, makes it possible for people to adapt, or customize, the pace with which they gobble up episodes of TV shows. With binge watching, audiences can watch entire episodes one after another with only a few seconds to break up the ending of one episode and the beginning of another. 
In addition, Netflix is introducing the ability for an audience to actually customize the content of the program itself. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a Netflix original released as a standalone film in December 2018, gives audiences (with compatible apps) the ability to choose their own narrative.
With Bandersnatch, the content creator was a willing participant. Series creator Charles Brooker collaborated with Netflix with the express purpose of harnessing digital technology to present an interactive TV episode. In fact, the interactivity is essential to telling the story. Bandersnatch is about a programmer who wants to develop a “choose your own adventure” fantasy novel into a video game. In doing so, he begins to question his own grasp of reality.
Variable playback speed is a natural by-product of this audience-first ethos. Personalization encourages an audience mentality of “Here we are now, entertain us.” Customization (“Let me share the steering wheel”) lets the audience adapt the experience without needing to do much work. With customization, the audience is still pretty passive, sitting on their sofas and using their remotes to tweak and shape the storytelling. Binge watching makes it possible for them to accelerate the content flow from one show to the next. Variable playback speed would enable people to accelerate the flow within the original program, thus changing the nature of the art, which is a crucial distinction. When artists lack a voice in the way technology is used in such service of the audience, they protest, which is what is going on with the reaction to variable playback speed.

An Inherent Tension

The outcry against variable playback speed demonstrates what happens when technology ratchets up the tension between art and audience in the era of personalization and customization. On the one hand, when an artist creates a movie, song, or any other expression, the art in theory belongs to the audience to interpret however they want. But the creator wants the audience to experience the art as it was conceived so that the audience can respond to the artist’s vision in full.
When the audience has the power to change the original expression, the artist feels marginalized. But today when the audience is denied that power, the audience revolts. Consider the petition that a million fans signed to demand a remake of the entire final season of Game of Thrones.
“[Showrunners] David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have proven themselves to be woefully incompetent writers when they have no source material (i.e. the books) to fall back on,” the petition claimed. “This series deserves a final season that makes sense.”
The howls of protest got so ugly that toxic fan culture was reportedly one of the factors influencing Benioff’s and Weiss’s decision to scrap plans to work with Lucas films on a Star Wars trilogy for HBO. The other factor? They have a $250 million deal to work with Netflix, which they cited officially as their reason for eschewing Lucas films. 

Netflix Sails into Dangerous Waters

And herein lies one of two problems with variable playback speed (if it sees the light of day) – one a matter of commercial success and the other, of artistic integrity.
  • Commercial risk: variable playback speed seems counter to the Netflix brand. Netflix has attracted storytellers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Natasha Lyonne by promoting itself as the entertainment company that respects artists with original voices. To implement variable playback speed without the consent of the storyteller breaks Netflix’s promise to the artist. 
  • Artistic risk: to allow audiences to adjust movie speeds without the consent of the creator may damage the integrity of the art itself. For example, a movie like Cuarón’s Academy-award winning Roma, which Netflix distributed, tells its story through quiet moments that unfold slowly. As Cuarón once commented, “We wanted the film to have a pace of life itself. Sometimes the most meaningful moments are the ones in which apparently nothing happens.” Blasting through Roma at an accelerated speed would defeat the purpose of the film, which won Oscars for best cinematography, best director, and foreign language film. Variable playback speed turns a movie like Roma into generic content that a person “gets through” on their way to doing something else. 
We’re living in an exciting but dangerous time for artists. Streaming services such as Netflix do indeed give artists more choices. As Martin Scorsese pointed out, traditional Hollywood studios passed on his high-risk, expensive production of The Irishman. So he went to Netflix, which is distributing the movie. 
But the combination of toxic fan culture and empowering technology puts art at risk. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which viewers will be 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?
Well, maybe not. Art should not be a cafe latte that people can order to their liking. When fans get exactly what they want from artists — when fans dictate terms to the artist and bend them to their will — they deny themselves the chance to be challenged by art that asks them to see the world through the viewpoint of the artist. The technology that’s supposed to empower the audience instead makes their world smaller. 
I am a Netflix investor.


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