Binge Watching Is Over. Get Ready for Speed Watching.

A report from the trenches of the campaign to cram more TV into your brain.

Illustration by Rob Dobi

Illustration by Rob Dobi

For most of my life, I was above average. Or, rather, below average, at least when it came to sleep. I was one of those people who manage to get by on very little, a freak biological trait that in America we equate with virtuousness, for some reason — as if those who have it are expending all that extra time curing cancer or writing Great Novels, when in fact we’re probably doing laundry or watching one more Law & Order rerun. But I bought into the party line, mentioning my scanty sleep habits in the offhanded yet boastful way in which some people talk about their inability to gain weight or their regrettably thick hair.

Then I turned 55. And suddenly — almost, it seemed, overnight — I went from coasting along on five or six hours of sleep to requiring seven, and feeling rather peaked with that. Where once I sprang from my bed at the first hint of the alarm, now I lingered, burrowing into the pillows, acquainting myself with the button on the clock marked SNOOZE.

This presented a dilemma. There are only 24 hours in a day, and if you’re normallyawake for 18 of those and then abruptly aren’t, something has to give. Long-standing habits — say, staying up to watch West Coast Phillies games — require adjustment. Which is why I was so intrigued when I heard about the phenomenon of “speed watching” — utilizing technology to view TV shows at faster speeds than normal. Consider, if you will, The Wire. Binge-watching all 60 episodes will take you two and a half days. Speed that up to 1.5x, though, and you can cut that to a cool 40 hours — saving nearly a day! Clearly, this was something I needed in my life. The laundry piles were getting pretty high.

You’ll notice how blithely I said you “utilize technology” to speed-watch. The fact is, I can barely use the remote to turn the TV on. I know there are little arrows that make shows play faster, so you can zip through commercials. But there’s no sound when you do, and usually when I try this, I whoosh past the end of the commercials and toggle back and forth, trying to stick my landing. Speed watching wasn’t something I’d be able to handle on my own. Luckily, I have a millennial child still living at home. I explained to my 24-year-old son Jake what I wanted to do, and via the magic of apps and the Internet and something I suspect is illegal, he downloaded the series Mr. Robot for us — well, him — to manipulate at will. I was impressed. Worth every penny of his student loans!

Popular lore has it that speed watching was invented in 2009 by a law student in Seattle named Alexander Theoharis when he accidentally bumped a button on his laptop. “I wanted to watch things but felt guilty about watching them,” Theoharis recalled to the Seattle Times in 2014. He was watching a show on VLC, an open-source media player; the laptop button bumped the show up to 1.1 times normal speed. Each subsequent push of the button nudged it up another notch. Theoharis’s preferred velocity, he eventually determined, was 1.6x, though he could watch The Office at as much as 2.4x, which says something I always thought about The Office anyway.

If you’re thinking speed watching makes everybody on-screen talk like Alvin and the Chipmunks, you’re living in the past. In our digital age, speed watching simply — hell, I don’t have any idea what it does. But voices sound natural, just speeded up. Jake and I sat through half the first episode of Mr. Robot — chosen mostly because neither of us had seen it, but also because it’s about a cyber hacker and everyone in it is obsessed with screens — at normal speed. Then he looked at me and grinned: “Ready for 1.2?” I nodded, he clicked, and we settled in.

The only difference was a slight jerkiness. “He’s twitchier,” Jake said of the lead character played by Rami Malek. And he was, but mostly in his eyes; he blinked more often, more quickly. We finished out the episode, then moved on to Episode 2 at 1.4x.

There’s a moment after you kick the program up a notch in which your senses adjust to what’s happening on-screen. This lapse makes you marvel at how the brain manages to coordinate it all, and also makes you feel like you’re doing methamphetamines. Jake startled me out of these thoughts by laughing as the actors walked across an empty plaza. “What?” I asked.

“Look at how they’re moving!” To me, their jerky steps and hyper arm swings harked back to old Charlie Chaplin films — familiar territory. To Jake, they looked bizarre. And what should have been a haunting Neil Diamond rendition of “If You Go Away” sounded awful at hyper-speed. (To be fair, I went back and listened to it in 1.0x, and that wasn’t so hot, either.) But we didn’t have any trouble following what was going on — at least, any more than normal for Mr. Robot.

By the end of the episode, we were at 1.6x. The scene in which Malek’s character trashes his apartment was a whirlwind of chaotic violence reminiscent of the most appalling parts of Grand Theft Auto. I found myself thinking of how my mom would wag her head as she passed my sister and me perched in front of our TV in Glenside back in the ’60s. “Vulgar,” she’d declare of Batman or My Favorite Martian or, most of all, Carol Burnett. “TV is just so vulgar. I don’t know how you can bear to watch.”

At least she let us watch. Jessa Lingel’s parents very often didn’t. They still only watch news; they think TV’s a waste of time. “I don’t know that they’re wrong,” laughs Lingel, who today is an assistant professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Back when I was finishing my PhD in New York City, I was so broke that I didn’t have Internet. People would say, ‘How do you do it?’ And then they’d say, ‘You must get so much work done.’”

Lingel, 33, who studies digital media, grew up to be a regular, if not an avid, TV viewer. “Some people try to see everything,” she notes. “I’m not that way. I watch some shows I’m really devoted to. I can always get behind Game of Thrones, for sure.”

How we feel about TV, Lingel says, is inevitably shaped by our parents — “even if we just react against their disapproval.” Remember how speed watching’s inventor was motivated by guilt? Lingel adds, though, that big TV corporations no longer need to fight a widespread belief that their medium is lowbrow. A few years back, the streaming service Hulu ran a series of ads with the proud tagline “For the love of TV.” The cultural conversations we have about television today are far different from those we had in the past: “We really are in a golden age of TV,” says Lingel. “The quality of the shows, the scriptwriting, the acting — it’s much better than in the latest blockbuster movies, which are so predictable.”

How we watch TV has also changed, shifting from networks to cable to, now, the Internet brands — Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu. Before Lingel was a professor, she was a librarian at MTV. In that job, she could chart the differences in how shows were archived, constructed, edited around commercials — even, she says, how they had been conceived of for so long. The major changes really started with binge watching, the popular practice of consuming multiple episodes of a show in one sitting. (How popular? At January’s “Binge TV — Media and the Hollywood Connection” conference in Las Vegas, attendees learned that 70 percent of us indulge in it.) “If you binge-watch old shows that have commercial breaks,” Lingel says, “it’s jarring. Whereas if you watch Stranger Things all the way through, you can tell the whole season is meant to be consumed in one or two sittings.”

Speed watching is a natural outgrowth of binge watching; how else can you cram a whole season of Fuller House into a single sick day? Lingel has observed the development of two interesting narratives when it comes to speed watching. The first is about efficiency: “It’s a form of life hacking, right? You adjust your life to new technology and time management.” The other narrative, she says, is, “Why should I be beholden to how a media company imagines this show?” That question arises within a cultural reframing that sees the individual asserting more control over all sorts of media — think fan fiction, music remixes, even GIFs. You engage with a TV show differently when you adjust its timing. In a recent story for New York magazine, writer Molly Fitzpatrick noted that watching the Netflix series The Crown at twice the normal speed gave her “the intoxicating sense that I can control the unraveling of history as we know it with the tap of a key.”

Late in his life, my dad got pretty deaf. When you watched TV at his place, the closed-captioning was on. Those black strips across the screen were annoying, but not as annoying as a Phillies game at 180 decibels. And the captions were worth it for the occasional hilarious descriptions of the action on-screen, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock famously “sobbing mathematically.”

When Jake bumps Mr. Robot up to 1.6x, he accidentally activates the closed-captioning, which sparks a debate. “Leave it on!” I tell him, happy to be able to follow what the characters are doing.

But he shakes his head: “With captions, you’re just speed-reading.” He leaves them on for a minute, and I see his point; I stare at the words to the exclusion of anything else. I’m not really watching TV at all.

In a recent piece on speed watching in the New York Times, Jeff Cannata, of the podcast Slashfilmcast, declared that speed watching “cheapens your entertainment,” while his colleague Devindra Hardawar opined, “I feel like you’re not even actually watching it. You’re consuming it. You’re not actually like absorbing it or letting it work on you in a creative way.”

I mention this to Lingel. “You can have an aesthetic conversation where you say you’re not having the same response to a show at two times the speed,” she allows, before adding that no two people ever really have the same experience while watching a show anyway, because of all the baggage we bring with us. But isn’t there an argument to be made, I ask, for honoring the creators’ intentions — maybe even for allowing yourself time to digest a show by watching an episode, letting it stew in your thoughts for a week, and then watching the next one?

“I subscribe to the Paris Review,” Lingel says. “Every once in a while, they’ll run a serial novel across multiple issues. At first, it was hard. Every three months I had to try to remember who was who and what was going on. And I’d find myself thinking: This is how everyone was reading Dickens.” We’ve pretty much moved on from that stop-and-start mentality; there are even speed-watching snobs, Lingel says, who, when you say you like a show, will say, “Oh, you have to watch it at 1.6x,” or, “I just can’t watch normal TV now — it seems so slow.” “Technology always seems to be speeding things up,” she muses. “But it could slow things down.” She mentions Douglas Gordon’s art installation 24 Hour Psycho, which stretched Hitchcock’s famous movie frame by frame from 109 minutes to an entire day. “Maybe what we need is a slow-watching movement,” she says.

Alexander Theoharis’s wife used to leave the room when he wanted to speed-watch. Jake’s in her corner. “I don’t want to do this,” he tells me before bumping our last episode of Mr. Robot up to 2.0x. “I don’t think I’ll be able to follow it.” When the episode ends, he says he has a headache and is done experimenting: “I watch TV for entertainment. This isn’t entertainment.” He’s right. Speed-watching is really hard work. There’s no time to take in how Rami Malek’s facial planes shift in the light, or the jumbles of junk in FSociety’s Coney Island headquarters. Jake and I are hanging by our fingertips, just trying to understand what’s going on.

We also aren’t getting anything else done. I watch TV while I’m multi-tasking: folding all that laundry, checking Twitter, mixing up cookie dough. To follow Mr. Robot at 2.0x, I had to do nothing but stare at the screen. Jake and I shushed my husband, Doug, when he got home from work mid-episode, then had to rewind to catch the dialogue he’d obliterated — one of several points, I confess, where we had to go back and watch a scene again. Even allowing for a learning curve, between the rewinding and the chores I couldn’t do while I watched, it didn’t feel like I was saving any time at all.

What I was doing was participating in a particularly first-world indulgence. Speed watching is “a very Western, rich-people way” of approaching TV, Lingel points out. Around the globe, entire villages of human beings gather at a single TV to catch the Olympics, or a soccer game. “To watch what you want how you want, by yourself, on a tiny screen,” Lingel says, “makes TV more and more private. There’s something to be said for a collaborative approach.”

There’s also something to be said, it seems to me, for commercials. Doug can’t abide them; the instant one appears, he jams the fast-forward on the remote. I consider them welcome pauses, a chance to get more wine or feed the cat. Doug obliterates them for the same reason speed-watchers accelerate — as a means of asserting control.

Or, rather, so he can think he is. “It’s been part of the intent of tech for a long time to provide us with that illusion,” notes Lingel. “You’re still consuming. You’re still watching one of their shows.” And paying for it, one way or another. At that conference in Vegas, one session was on how to integrate ads into the binge-watching process more effectively. Speed watching won’t, you’ll pardon the expression, be far behind.

Published as “Crankcase: The Need for Speed” in the March 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.