Speed watching is testimony to how media consumption has mutated in this era of overabundant content. It is difficult to know exactly how widespread this practice is, but it is a reminder of viewers’ increasing empowerment over what they watch.
When VCRs hit the market a quarter-century ago, the way content was viewed changed forever, and the temporality of television was extended to infinity. Viewers henceforth had the freedom to consume audio and video content as they saw fit. They now had control over viewing times, supports and formats. Within a few years, viewers could become their own content curators or programmers if they so wished.
What followed has been well documented. Today, we live in a world that is saturated with content and in which binge watching is part of mainstream culture. Viewers no longer accept to miss out on the latest series that has just been posted online. In the space of a few years, binge watching reached its [temporal] limits seeing as the quantity of audiovisual content available is today overwhelming and extends beyond what viewers are able to consume. And content has kept the upper hand ever since.
Between 2009 and 2016, the number of series produced in the US per year increased by 174%, and 455 original drama series were broadcast during peak hours on American TV screens in 2016, according to FX Research. That’s much more than the 8,760 hours in a year, explaining why it has become impossible for any human being to watch everything available on TV.
Speed watching to save time
In order to make up for the time spent watching series or podcasts, some viewers have discovered new ways to quench their thirst for new episodes despite their overly tight schedules. They turned to speed watching.
The practice consists of watching video or audio content at an accelerated rate (usually on a PC), at speeds of between 1.2 and 2 times the normal. And the possibilities are just about endless: YouTube offers speed adjustment parameters, Google Chrome offers an add-on that enables Netflix subscribers to do the same, and the VLC application also features such a function.
The primary goal of speed watching is to save time. A 52-minute episode of Game of Thronescan be watched in only 39 minutes and the entire season can be consumed in six and a half hours instead of eight and a half hours at normal speed.
10 seconds of Game of Thrones at a speed of 1x (normal speed)
10 seconds of Game of Thrones at a speed of 1.2x
10 seconds of Game of Thrones at a speed of 2x
But if we are to believe fans, results vary according to content. The Office is not a series that is well adapted to speed watching, whereas Modern Family becomes even funnier when watched at an accelerated speed.
A mainstream practice?
It is still too early to collect reliable statistics on this practice, but is nevertheless interesting to note that, based on an informal survey conducted on Twitter by David Chen (blogger for SlashFilm), only 2% of the 1,505 respondents admitted to speed watching TV shows or films, whereas 79% considered this practice as an abomination.
Memory factor and the fear of missing out
This trend toward speed watching not only offers the possibility of saving time, but also reveals itself to be a good way to curtail memory problems. Viewers commonly follow several series in parallel (the average viewer watches five series at the same time), and each series develops multiple storylines. Viewers therefore risk getting lost in this labyrinth of cross-narratives.
This poses a risk in terms of audiences’ memories seeing as viewers are inundated with complex storylines and constellations of characters. Speed watching thereby offers a solution—in the same way as the video recaps of past episodes or entire series prepared by producers or fan blogs.
Finally, speed watching possibly stems from the FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) phenomenon, i.e., the fear of missing out in the digital age. Rather than skipping an episode, viewers prefer to speed watch it.
What are the impacts on content?
Speed watchers seem to choose to ignore the intrigue, rhythm, interplay between the actors and their responses. Viewers focus solely on extracting the structure or storyline in its simplest expression. Consequently, the care given to the production and creative components is no longer as visible, and peripheral scenes and subplots fall by the wayside.
This phenomenon raises an important question for creative industries: should the focus be placed on the artist’s intention or the consumer’s preference? Clearly, viewers have become almighty seeing as they can themselves create, edit and produce episodes of their favourite series. It’s what American media scholar Henry Jenkins has qualified as fan art, fan fiction, and participative culture. It results from a consumption pattern that is both private (on mobile or PC) and dependent on online fan communities that are increasingly present.
When technology changes the storyline
Speed watching is also testimony to the acceleration of time. In 2014, Wired magazine reported that the average length of English-language shots had decreased from 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today. Max Mad Fury Road, released in 2015, counts an average of 15 shots per minute, and a total of 2,700 shots, whereas the previous opus, The Road Warrior, totalled only 1,403 shots according to Cinemetrics.
With respect to television, according to a study conducted in the US in 2004, an accelerated tempo keeps viewers more engaged in what they are watching. We also know for a fact that some broadcasters resort to speeding up certain shows to squeeze in more ads per hour.
Solutions for the industry?
Whereas today’s trend is to focus on short video formats or long series—the episodes of which are made available all at once (as is the case with Netflix and other OTT platforms)—, traditional formats are challenged and must meet the expectations of new audiences.
It seems vital at this stage to redefine our relationship to images, our perception of what represents an acceptable speed in visual and narrative terms. Whereas there is no use to accelerate content that is already fast, short and adapted to mobile, speed watching is designed foremost for long formats, series or feature films—whether fictional or documentary formats.
To answer these changes, screenwriters may choose to break up the formatting of an episode or add further detail such as to slow down viewers who have a compulsive need to consume content. Of course, it remains to be seen if this trend will gain in popularity, but viewers seem poised to constantly absorb more and more content in light of the statistics that are already on the rise, including in Canada.