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Advocates For Deaf And Blind Laud Netflix's New Playback Features


Netflix recently announced it's rolling out a new feature that allows some viewers to stream their favorite shows or films slower - half-speed, say - or faster. The feature, which is currently only available to Android users, adjusts voice pitch to make the faster or slowed-down speed sound natural.

The idea drew criticism from directors like Judd Apatow, who said last fall that platforms should leave content as it was, quote, "intended to be seen." But advocates for the deaf and blind are lauding the new feature, saying it's a win for people who rely on playback options so they can also enjoy the cinematic experience. One of those advocates is Everette Bacon. He's a board member with the National Federation of the Blind, and he joins us from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hello. Thanks for joining us.

EVERETTE BACON: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So for those who don't know, for someone who is blind, how do you watch films or TV shows?

BACON: So we watch films just like anybody else, only we have what's called audio description or audio description narration that's going on while the programming is being viewed. And so basically, when there is no dialogue between the actors, a narrator comes on and describes what's happening in the scene and what's happening in the show so we have an understanding.

So, like, they might describe the set, what's happening around us. They might give us some gender information or race information about the characters - just overall things that help us understand and comprehend what the creators were trying to portray to the general public.

FADEL: And so how does this new playback feature assist with the viewing experience?

BACON: Well, blind individuals - many of us use a screen-reading technology on our computers and our phones, and we have learned and adapted over time to speed that up on a regular basis. We've also been listening to audio books for years. As a member of the National Federation of the Blind, I've been listening to audio books from the Library for the Blind for many years.

And we've always been able to speed up that process because we're listening all the time, and our ears are kind of trained over time to listen at a quicker speed, and so allowing us to do the same thing on a show like a documentary or some type of other content - it really helps a whole lot when you're trying to consume such great content in mass quantity.

FADEL: And why is it so important? You mention that you've been doing this in other platforms. Why is it so important on a streaming platform like Netflix?

BACON: Well, I think it's very important because I'm going to watch a lot of content just like anybody else. And honestly, I've been listening to so many things all of my life that when I listen at regular speed, sometimes it can sound a little slower than it should.

And so I - my ears kind of want it a little bit more faster as a blind individual because that's what I've been used to listening to my computer, listening to my phone, listening to audio books. So it's only a natural process that I would want the speed to be a bit faster on the streaming content that I'm viewing on Netflix or other platforms.

FADEL: You know, as I mentioned earlier, there are directors, actors who've pushed back, saying this playback option distorts their art and the way it was intended to be consumed. How would you respond to them?

BACON: Well, I would say to someone like director Judd Apatow, who is a person who I love the programs that he's put together, and I've watched several of his films - there is so much information that they have put out in their content that audio description allows me as a blind individual to comprehend and observe. And to having that speed feature - it just allows me to better understand and better comprehend what they were trying to portray in their creation.

I love a lot of Judd Apatow's work, and I think if he understood me as a blind individual and how I consume content, he would be - applaud this new feature by Netflix.

FADEL: And before we let you go, you know, this made news, that Netflix is putting this playback option in. And I'm sure we'll hear about this issue again about access and accessibility to this content. What should our listeners know about why this matters?

BACON: Well, I think this matters greatly in creating inclusion for individuals who are blind or individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing. I just think it creates more opportunity for inclusion - for everyone to enjoy products the way they were intended.

FADEL: That was Everette Bacon, a board member with the National Federation of the Blind, discussing the new playback features on Netflix.

Thanks for being with us.

BACON: Thank you for having me again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.