Jeff Guo: I have found a new way to watch TV, and it changes everything

By Jeff Guo

Watching television shows on fast forward changed everything. Photo / iStock
Watching television shows on fast forward changed everything. Photo / iStock

I have a habit that horrifies most people. I watch television and films in fast forward. This has become increasingly easy to do with computers (I'll show you how) and the time savings are enormous.

Four episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fit into an hour. An entire season of Game of Thrones goes down on the bus ride from D.C. to New York.

I started doing this years ago to make my life more efficient. Between trendy web shows, auteur cable series, and BBC imports, there's more to watch ever before. Some TV execs worry that the industry is outpacing its audience. A record-setting 412 scripted series ran in 2015, nearly double the number in 2009.

Four episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fit into an hour.
Four episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fit into an hour.

"There is simply too much television," FX Networks CEO John Landgraf said last year. Nonsense, responded Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos, who has been commissioning shows at a startling rate.

"There's no such thing as too much TV," he said.

So here we are, spending three hours a day on average, scrambling to keep up with the Kardashians, the Starks, the Underwoods, and the dozens of others on the roster of must-watch TV, which has exploded in the age of fragmented audiences.

Nowadays, to stay on the same wavelength with your different groups of friends - the ones hating on Meat Chad and the ones cooing over Khaleesi - you have to watch in bulk.

This is where the trick of playing videos at 1.5x to 2x comes in - the latest twist in the millennia-old tradition of technology changing storytelling. The concept should be familiar to many. For years, podcast and audiobook players have provided speedup options, and research shows that most people prefer listening to accelerated speech.

In recent years, software has made it much easier to perform the same operation on videos. This was impossible for home viewers in the age of VHS. But computers can now easily speed up any video you throw at them.

You can play DVDs and iTunes purchases at whatever tempo you like. YouTube allows you select a speedup factor on its player. And a Google engineer has written a popular Chrome extension that accelerates most other web videos, including on Netflix, Vimeo and Amazon Prime.

More than 100,000 people have downloaded that plug-in, and the reviews are ecstatic. "Oh my God! I regret all the wasted time I've lived before finding this gem!!" one user wrote.

But speeding up video is more than an efficiency hack. I quickly discovered that acceleration makes viewing more pleasurable. Modern Family played at twice the speed is far funnier - the jokes come faster and they seem to hit harder. And I get less frustrated at shows that want to waste my time with filler plots or gratuitous violence.

As I've come to consume all my television on my computer, I've developed other habits, too. I don't watch linearly anymore; I often scrub back and forth to savor complex scenes or to skim over slow ones. In other words, I watch television like I read a book. I jump around. I re-read. Sometimes I speed up. Sometimes I slow down.

I confess these new viewing techniques have done something strange to my sense of reality. I can't watch television in real-time anymore. Movie theaters feel suffocating. I need to be able to fast-forward and rewind and accelerate and slow down, to be able to parcel my attention where it's needed.

The most common objection I hear is that this ruins the cinematic experience. Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Columbia, told me: "Sometimes watching a movie is like lovemaking: Isn't a sustained seduction more gratifying than momentary thrills?"

But the more I've learned about the history and the science of media consumption, the more I've come to believe this is the future of how we will appreciate television and movies. Maybe not everyone will watch on fast-forward like I do, but we will all be watching on our own terms.

In a way, what's happening to video recalls what happened to literature when we stopped reading aloud, together, and started reading silently, alone. Beginning in the Middle Ages, people no longer had to gather in groups to hear tales or learn the news or study religion. They could be alone with a text and their own thoughts, an unprecedented freedom that led to political and religious turmoil and forever changed intellectual life.

With computers, video consumption is also becoming a solitary, self-paced act - and maybe a more analytical act, as well. If you believe, as I do, in the artistic potential of television and film, then perhaps we are on the brink of another cultural transformation - viewers finally seizing control of this medium. And the medium will be better for it.

When fast forwarding television you can watch entire season of Game of Thrones goes down on the bus ride from D.C. to New York. Photo / iStock
When fast forwarding television you can watch entire season of Game of Thrones goes down on the bus ride from D.C. to New York. Photo / iStock

For a very long time, life was limited by the rate at which we spoke. Although we have had writing systems for millennia, early texts were designed to be read aloud, meaning that literature unfolded at the pace of human speech.

Many ancient Greek and Roman documents, for instance, lacked punctuation, spaces or lowercase letters, making it challenging for people to understand them without sounding out the words syllable by syllable.

"A written text was essentially a transcription which, like modern musical notation, became an intelligible message only when it was performed orally to others or to oneself," historian Paul Saenger writes.

There are physical limits to how quickly we can form sounds, as anyone who has attempted a tongue-twister can attest. Mouths need time to move into position for the next vowel or consonant. A good estimate for the natural rate of speech in English is 200 to 300 syllables per minute, which translates into 150 to 200 words per minute.

According to Audible, the audiobook company, the typical book recording is performed at 155 wpm. A 1990 study found that radio broadcasts run at 160 wpm on average, while everyday conversations, which use shorter words, occur at about 210 wpm.

For much of human history, this was the sound barrier for communicating ideas.

It's not that silent reading was impossible in antiquity. It was just very difficult. There exist tales of scholars who seemed to absorb books silently; in the fourth century, Saint Augustine told of an odd monk who read without forming the words with his mouth.

"When he read," Augustine wrote, "his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still."

Historians debate whether these silent readers were regarded as freaks or the practice was merely unusual. Even by the fifth and sixth centuries, reading still tended to be a group activity. One person read aloud while others listened.

Even for scribes who copied manuscripts in solitude, the act of reading was intertwined with the act of speaking. Many early medieval monks who had taken vows of silence were still allowed to mumble as they read, Saenger writes, because mumbling was considered part of the reading process.

During the Middle Ages, scribes began introducing spacing and punctuation into texts, which made silent reading much easier for everyone. The practice began in monasteries around the 10th century and slowly spread to university libraries a few hundred years later, and finally to the European aristocracy by the 14th and 15th centuries, according to historian Roger Chartier.

The technique of silent, solitary reading released people from the sluggishness of the spoken word - as well as from the judgment of their peers. Reading in private gave people room to engage with a text, the freedom to think critically and sometimes heretically.

Opinions too controversial for group reading could be disseminated and consumed in private. The result, historians say, was an intellectual, scientific - and spiritual - blossoming in Europe.

"Silent, secret, private reading paved the way for previously unthinkable audacities," Chartier writes. "In the late Middle Ages, even before the invention of the printing press, heretical texts circulated in manuscript form, critical ideas were expressed, and erotic books, suitably illuminated, enjoyed considerable success."

Chartier called silent reading the "other revolution" - together with the printing press and mass literacy, these developments created both the demand and the supply for a vast quantity of writing. The faster pace of silent reading accelerated the spread of new ideas and vaulted Western society toward religious and political schism.

"This 'privatization' of reading is undeniably one of the major cultural developments of the early modern era," Chartier argues.

- - -

What silent reading also revealed was that the rate of human thought far outstrips the rate of human speech.

Broadcasters speak at about 160 wpm, but college students can comfortably devour a text at 300 wpm, which also seems to be the most efficient speed for reading comprehension, on average.

Some people, of course, read slower, and others read much, much faster. The beauty of text is that we absorb it at our own pace. Not so for audiovisual recordings, at least not for much of the 20th century.

If you play back a tape or a phonograph record too quickly, the voices turn squeaky and unintelligible. Recordings remained difficult to skim until the 1950s, when researchers made a set of discoveries about human speech.

It turns out that sounds of the spoken word are vastly redundant. Vowels and consonants drag on longer than necessary for us to understand them. In the late 1940s, Harvard researchers discovered they could cover up more than half of a speech recording without damaging a listener's comprehension.

The trick was to rapidly mute and unmute the audio. These silent gaps were brief enough that people's minds could fill them in easily. Words sounded choppy, but they remained perfectly intelligible.

"It is much like seeing a landscape through a picket fence," the researchers wrote. "The pickets interrupt the view at regular intervals, but the landscape is perceived as continuing behind the pickets."

A team of engineers at the University of Illinois soon had another idea: Instead of leaving the gaps in, why not cut them out and stitch the remaining slivers of audio together?

For instance, deleting every other millisecond of audio would cause the recording to play in half the time. This new way of speeding up sound, which became known as the sampling method, had the benefit of not making people sound like chipmunks.

In the 1960s, a blind psychologist named Emerson Foulke began experimenting with this technique to accelerate speech. A professor at the University of Louisville, Foulke was frustrated with the slowness of recorded books for the blind, so he tried speeding them up.

The sampling method proved surprisingly effective. In Foulke's experiments, speech could be accelerated to 250-275 wpm without affecting people's scores on a listening comprehension test.

These limits were suspiciously close to the average college reading rate. Foulke suspected that beyond 300 wpm, deeper processes in the brain were getting overloaded.

Experiments showed that at 300-400 wpm, individual words were still clear enough to understand; except at that rate, many listeners couldn't keep up with rapid stream of words, likely because their short-term memories were overtaxed.

Some, of course, fared better than others. Just as people naturally read at different rates, subjects varied in how well they could understand accelerated speech. Further studies found a connection to cognitive ability.

Those with higher intelligence, as well as faster readers, were more adept at understanding sped-up recordings. (The NSA once considered using tests involving accelerated speech to screen for people who could become morse code operators.)

The most startling discovery, though, was that people actually enjoy listening to accelerated audio. Foulke and his colleagues noticed that college students preferred recordings that had been sped up by 30 percent, from 175 wpm to 222 wpm. More recent studies find that, given the choice, people will increase playback rate by about 40 to 50 percent on average - a 1.4 to 1.5x speedup.

This tendency extends to video as well, as experiments with video lectures and even Discovery Channel shows have demonstrated. Increasing the tempo of a recording seems to stave off boredom and help people stay engaged. "With the slower pace, my attention span actually wavered, and I focused on too much detail," one subject told researchers at Microsoft.

Sometimes, people don't even notice that they are watching on fast-forward. Cable companies will slightly speed up shows to make room for more ads, but the difference can be hard to detect - in part because the brain adapts to the higher speeds.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Defense Department began investigating compressed speech as a way to boost learning. Military-funded experiments showed that people can be trained to better understand accelerated recordings.

Just a few weeks of regular exposure seemed to alter how people perceived and processed language, causing them to prefer faster and faster listening rates.

Some of those changes happen within minutes. An experiment in 1997 found that listening to just five sentences of accelerated speech boosted subsequent comprehension rates by 15 percent.

This process may be related to how our brains adjust to unfamiliar accents. Have you ever noticed that it becomes easier and easier to talk to someone with a foreign accent? It's not them. It's your brain making short-term adaptations.

Our brains also make long-term adaptations to accelerated speech. Continued training increases people's accuracy rates and their comfort with sped-up recordings.

Functional MRI scans show changes in how their brains respond to speech. Anecdotally, many subjects found that repeated exposure to accelerated speech caused speech at regular speeds to sound strange.

Imagine watching Game of Throne in high speed. Photo / HBO
Imagine watching Game of Throne in high speed. Photo / HBO

This seems to have happened to me as well. After watching accelerated video on my computer for a few months, live television began to seem excruciatingly slow. Ilya Grigorik, the Google engineer who invented the Chrome extension, had a similar experience.

He regularly watches videos at double speed, adjusting the pace up or down depending on how complex the ideas are.

"Whenever I describe it to people, I get a very weird look," he said. "Then I actually convince them to try it. It's uncomfortable for them at first, but once they get into it, they really get into it."

- - -

We all chart our own paths through a text. I rarely read a book straight through from start to finish. I take detours, I backtrack, and I always scan the plot summary on Wikipedia to learn what's coming next. Psychologists at the University of San Diego have found that people enjoy a story more if the ending has already been spoiled. Suspense, it seems, is overrated.

The Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov believed that re-reading was the only way to truly enjoy a novel. Not until the second or third go-around can we perceive a novel's grand schemes and secrets.

Of the initial encounter, he once said: "When we read a book for the first time, the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation."

There's no one right way to enjoy a book. The literary critic Roland Barthes encouraged us not to treat novels so literally or linearly, but to traipse around in search of our own meanings. Why, then, do we still watch television straightforwardly? Why do we relinquish ourselves to the pace set by a film's director? Can't we find more interesting ways to be a couch potato?

For a long time, the answer was that the technology did not allow it. But with the rise of computer viewing, everyone can take charge of how they travel through a video. I often consume reality programs at double speed or faster because the idioms of these shows are so familiar. For me, watching "The Bachelorette" is like shucking a crab. I know where the juicy bits are, and I know which parts are inedible.

These alternative styles of viewing are no less illuminating. At double speed, the Red Wedding scene from Game of Thrones crosses the threshold from high drama to high farce.

You start to see how the directors strained to create a moment of maximum trauma, how the death scenes are overacted, how the massacre operates like the mechanical gnashings of a meat-processing plant.

I recently described my viewing habits to Mary Sweeney, the editor on the cerebral cult classic Mulholland Drive. She laughed in horror. "Everything you just said is just anathema to a film editor," she said. "If you don't have respect for how something was edited, then try editing some time! It's very hard."

Sweeney, who is also a professor at the University of Southern California, believes in the privilege of the auteur. She told me a story about how they removed all the chapter breaks from the DVD version of Mulholland Drive to preserve the director's vision.

"The film, which took two years to make, was meant to be experienced from beginning to end as one piece," she said.

I disagree. Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite films, but it's intentionally dreamlike and incomprehensible at times. The DVD version even included clues from director David Lynch to help people baffled by the plot.

I advise first-time viewers to watch with a remote in hand to ward off disorientation. Liberal use of the fast-forward and rewind buttons allows people to draw connections between different sections of the film.

I found something of a sympathetic ear in Peter Markham, who teaches directing at the American Film Institute Conservatory. "This notion of privacy, of watching privately and forming your own cathedral of narrative - that's interesting," he said.

"But that, I think, is mostly an intellectual or cerebral experience. The thing about dramatic narrative is that it creates an emotional, visceral, subconscious experience. That stuff has its own rhythm, its own insistence."

Markham argued that film is more than a stream of dialogue or a sequence of events. The timing of the images imprints on our brains in a special way. "If you speed up Hitchcock, if you speed up "Rear Window," you won't get the same experience," he said. "It's like trying to speed up a Beyoncé track. It's already at the perfect speed."

- - -

IT didn't occur to me until later, of course, that people do mess with Beyoncé all the time. DJs chop her up, stretch her over new beats, snatch bits of her vocals to craft new songs. Today's cinema fans also engage in forms of creative remixing.

They assemble montages of their favorite characters. They create entirely original shows by re-editing scenes from ones. The actor Topher Grace, for instance, famously made his own unauthorized version of the Star Wars prequel movies called Episode III.5: The Editor Strikes Back. Those who have seen it say it's a masterful recombobulation of those three flawed films.

Luke Skywalker , Princess Leia , and Hans Solo from the Star Wars special edition movie.
Luke Skywalker , Princess Leia , and Hans Solo from the Star Wars special edition movie.

Henry Jenkins, a media theorist at the University of Southern California, reminded me that creative repurposing has been happening in fan communities for decades. Throughout his career, Jenkins has studied the rise of "participatory culture" - ways in which fans take control of favorite stories through fanzines, fan art, fan fiction, and more recently, fan videos.

"Fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate," Jenkins wrote over a decade ago. "Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths."

Perhaps fan culture offers the most optimistic vision for the future of media consumption. The power of the auteur is diminishing, but our appreciation for the art form is increasing. More and more, we will watch TV on our computers, on own terms, creating our own meanings and deriving our own, private pleasures.

"I think your experience is very similar to my own," Jenkins said. "I do treat television more and more like a book. I totally get that analogy, and it's a good way to think about the degree of control we now have over what we watch - which has been building up over time, with VCRs, then DVRs, and now streaming and digital distribution. We're learning to think about television in a different way."

"I'm fully convinced that everything is better in a box set," he added.

Netflix, which is essentially the motherlode of box sets, has made this kind of careful viewing much easier. That's one reason that serialized shows have become so popular in recent years.

Since audiences can easily catch up on missed episodes - many of them are bingewatching anyway - show-runners can tell longer, more complicated stories with less repetition. The rewind button allows television to be a little more sophisticated. If you didn't understand the first time, just watch again.

But the spread of solitary, customized viewing will not mean the death of television culture - quite the opposite. People will watch an episode and dissect it on Twitter; they will share their favorite scenes and watch them on repeat.

"While viewing is becoming a more solitary, personal activity, the flip side is that fan communities have grown stronger," Jennifer Holt, a media scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told me. "People still want to connect. They still want that social experience, only now it's all happening online."

This practice has expanded the dialogue between the makers and the consumers of television. "Show creators, writers and directors are now extremely sensitive to what the blogosphere is saying about their shows," Paris Barclay, the president of the Directors Guild of America, said a few years ago.

Gabourey Sidibe, stars as Becky in television series Empire.
Gabourey Sidibe, stars as Becky in television series Empire.

Barclay, who has worked on shows such as Glee, Empire and Scandal, was wary of this development. "Some shows have become increasingly dull because taking risks with the show is discouraged," he said. "Audiences generally want to see a different version of the show that they love. They don't really want to see it become something else."

But as Jenkins, the media theorist, points out, creators have always adapted their work to suit who was listening. "Storytelling is a bardic medium," he said.

"Bards like Homer would tell a story to a roomful of people and he would be attentive to what they liked and what they didn't like. The same was true of Dickens, whose novels were published serially. He changed plot points and characters on the fly."

Now that tools are making it increasingly easy to alter the flow of how we watch films and television, viewers will also have power to change the plot and the characters of a show to suit their own tastes.

We should look forward to a future that involves more cross-pollination, more crazy fan-theories, more creative misunderstandings, all of it enabled by new ways of consuming television, whether that means binge-watching, surfing clips on social media or even watching on fast-forward.

We risk transforming, perhaps permanently, the ways in which our brains perceive people, time, space, emotion. And isn't that marvelous?

- Washington Post

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