Fast Playback and the Art of Speed Leisure

Consuming media in double- and triple-time may be more efficient, but at what cost?

Last year, about six months into my first full-time job, I realized that the TV-watching habits I had developed in college (in short: “Watch pretty much everything”) were unsustainable. I was faced with two choices: Watch less or spend less time watching. Those two are, despite appearances, not actually the same thing anymore. Thanks to the relatively new ability to control the playback speed of digital media, it’s possible to breeze through, for example, a 12-hour season of television in considerably less time.

But let’s step back. Until the advent of home media, most forms of entertainment moved at a designated, unchangeable speed. Live TV and radio broadcasts proceeded, obviously, in real-time (and were not available for replay). Films shown in movie theaters by and large stuck to the convention of 24 frames per second. Even when consumers could control the playback speed of their analog media, it wasn’t perfect—anyone who has ever accidentally played an LP at 45 rpm knows that there is a “chipmunk effect” which raises the pitch to squeaky levels.

But in 2004, as Apple’s iPod was growing to dominate the MP3 player market, the company quietly introduced a new feature in a mid-July software update: “Select reading playback speed for audiobooks.” Without affecting pitch, users could play files at two or three times their normal speed, potentially cutting a 10-hour recording into a five-hour one (although, Apple fudges the exact rate). This is now a standard feature in many podcast apps.

In September of 2008, the developers of open-source media player VLC took it a step further. In VLC 0.9 (codename Grishenko), the player introduced “audio playback when going slower/faster (with pitch correction via new scaletempo audio filter).” That pitch correction is a key turning point, in that it made controlling playback speed not just limited to the spoken word audio, but to sound synced to video as well. Even sped-up music would simply be faster—not also at a higher pitch. Goodbye, chipmunks.

Since then, VLC’s playback speed slider has changed the way that I watch TV and movies. (Other players have incorporated variable speed as well. YouTube includes one in its player settings menu, which made my rental of The Interview tolerable.) For things that I want to fully consider and absorb—prestige dramas, densely packed comedies—1x speed is fine. But for shows or films that I have to watch for more mercenary reasons—I was, for instance, assigned to watch all 84 episodes of the dumpster trash pile that is Californication—cranking it up to 1.5x or double speed has saved both my time and probably my sanity as well. On a recent Saturday, I ran through a 12-hour season of Homeland in eight hours. Somehow, I’ve made even my leisure activities ruthlessly efficient.

There are, at least in my mind, other perceived benefits to speeding up. In addition to saving time, it also forces me to focus. Rather than having podcasts on in the background, my attentiveness waxing and waning, speeding up playback requires me to pay attention constantly, or else I’ll lose the thread. Roundtable chat podcasts at normal speed are now almost unbearably slow to me, and the only shows I listen to at normal speed now are ones that heavily incorporate music.

But a simple speed-up wasn’t enough for some people. Last July, the Instapaper developer Marco Arment introduced his new podcast app, Overcast, with a marquee feature which he called Smart Speed. “Smart Speed shortens silences,” he wrote. “Playing at faster speeds has always helped people make time to hear more podcasts, but it usually came at the expense of sound quality and intelligibility.” Instead of simply playing a file faster, Arment’s algorithm takes out dead air, shaving off half-seconds and slightly-too-long awkward silences.

It generally works, although it’s almost impossible to hear the function in action (for intro/outro musical themes such as Serial’s, however, the adjustment is more apparent). According to the app’s settings menu, over the last six months or so, “Smart Speed has saved [me] an extra 10 hours beyond speed adjustments alone.” For a block constructed from thousands of tiny sections of dead air, that seems substantial.

Am I losing something by speeding up what I watch and listen to? Discussing podcast playback speed a couple of weeks ago, The Verge argued that by cranking a podcast up to 1.5x, “At best, it forces our brains to work in overdrive; worst, it destroys the art of timing.” That first point is unfounded, and that second point is a matter of opinion.

In terms of information retention, one could make an argument that I’m literally retaining less by watching and listening at higher speeds. In a paper titled “Review of Research on the Intelligibility and Comprehension of Accelerated Speech” published in 1969, psychologists reviewed a number of studies that investigated word rate in relation to listener comprehension. The studies found, unsurprisingly, that as words per minute increased, comprehension decreased slowly and then at a more accelerated rate (on a curve, in other words). Researchers also “found that learning efficiency increased as word rate was increased until a word rate of approximately 280 wpm was reached.” So long as you stay under that, you should be good. They also found that “the word rate at which a listening selection is presented apparently has no special effect on the rate at which forgetting occurs.” In layman’s terms, I’m not going to forget what happened on last week’s plodding episode of Mad Men simply because it was sped up. So long as I still fully comprehend the characters’ speech, no matter the rate, information retention remains the same.

Artistically, one could make the argument that watching a slightly sped-up film leaves less time for dramatic beats or jokes to land, or for visual touches to get notices, or that it violates the artist’s original vision. That’s a fair point, but as media consumers, we’ve been compromising on a creator’s original artistic vision for a long time. Movies shown on TV are interrupted with regular commercial breaks, and in many cases have entire scenes excised for time. We watch films meant for IMAX screens on our cellphones. If we can compromise visually, why can’t we do the same audibly or chronally? I wanted to see Avatar in IMAX 3-D at its intended pace; I can’t say I felt the same necessity for The Interview. It’s a matter of personal compromise, not social obligation.