Speed Doesn’t Always Kill

Yesterday, I linked to a Wall Street Journal article criticizing television networks for speeding up movies and television episodes to squeeze in more time for commercials. While an informed first-impression might react in horror at such a practice, I argued that it’s no big whoop for two reasons.

  1. TV broadcasts and in-class screenings are, at best, proxies for the original work. No one should expect these viewings to be the canonical version of a film or a first-run broadcast.
  2. Whereas time and pacing might be crucial for some films, speeding up a film by 2-4% doesn’t really matter for other works. An educated expert in film history and aesthetics like me should be able to determine when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.

All of this was before I had read Marco Arment’s defense of letting people listen to podcasts at whatever speed he/she wants, published on Tuesday. He has an interest in the matter because he developed Overcast), a popular podcatching app for iOS. One of the unique features of that app is Smart Speed, which allows listeners to skip moments of silence to reduce the overall listening time of the program. In his nuanced argument, he distinguishes between certain podcasts, where timing and pauses are essential, and other podcasts where it is less relevant. He notes:

Podcasts (and video) are impossible to skim effectively, but we can vary our listening speed. Just as not every article is worth reading slowly and completely, not every podcast is This American Life. Even most episodes of This American Life aren’t as timing-sensitive as the Mike Daisey retraction. Some podcasts are painstakingly crafted, artistic “storytelling” shows, but most aren’t, by far.

The same is true for most feature films and television programs. There are some works where pace and tempo absolutely matter and others where it does not. As I wrote yesterday, I would never speed up a Hitchcock or Maya Deren film—or an episode of The Wire—because speed and tempo absolutely matters in those works. The same is true for even less artistic works, but it takes a trained and experienced viewer to know when it does matter. For example, in college, a well-respected film professor—I won’t say who—confessed that she “skimmed” certain silent films at double speed because, in her expert opinion, the time saved outweighed the original intent of some long-dead hack studio filmmaker making five films a week (my words, not hers).

One of the unique aspects of Overcast is its approach to reducing listening time. Most other podcatching apps simply allow listeners to speed up playback. For example, Downcast for iOS allows listeners to audition a podcast at 1.5x and 2.0x speed.1 I have used Downcast for years but never used its 1.5x/2.0x feature because it altered the pitch to such a degree that l simply couldn’t enjoy the content. Smart Speed in Overcast, on the other hand, is a compromise. It retains the same pitch, a crucial aspect of sonic fidelity, but also allows listeners to “skim” the content. Reducing the moments of silence might be terrible for a chilling interview on 60 Minutes, but it might not matter as much for a group of journalists discussing the television industry, despite the fact that both are excellent, informative, and well-produced programs.

You can be doctrinal about screening and auditioning things at their original speed, but as with everything good and holy in this world, it is more complicated than you might have initially thought. That’s why we have to make our own decisions about balancing our precious time, in-class discussion (or advertising minutes), and the integrity of a work.

The above links to the iTunes store are affiliate links.


  1. Remember, that I have only sped up fewer than ten screening and only at 1.02x–1.04x. 

Leave a Comment