How Movies & TV Could Become Your New Audiobooks

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Key Takeaways

  • Netflix is testing an audio-only version of its videos that would allow users to go without a screen.
  • The move comes as many people are experiencing screen fatigue during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • If Netflix’s audio-only option catches on, we might see a renaissance of video production designed to excel at both sound and screen, observers say.
Couple listening to and sharing music while laying on grass
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Netflix is testing the ability to let users experience an audio-only version of its movies. The new option could be a great way to take a break from screens while still having the ability to binge your favorite shows. 

The move by Netflix to offer movies without the visuals is a bid to compete with the growing popularity of podcasts and other forms of screenless entertainment. Audio is the fastest growing interface, and with the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, many people are looking for entertainment alternatives, experts say. 

"Many people are experiencing ‘screen fatigue’, and this offers a way to enjoy Netflix’s content without the screen time," Debika Sihi, an associate professor of economics and business at Southwestern University, said in an email interview. "The growing popularity of podcasts and audiobooks has set the foundation for auditory content consumption. From an operational perspective, this mode uses less data. This is likely to be a welcome option when data plans everywhere are being stretched to the maximum."

Podcasts, but for Screens?

Netflix will give users a podcast-like experience for its shows, Android Police first reported. It has launched a test of an audio-only option for Android, allowing users to disable video and just listen to the audio of a TV show or movie in the background. 

"We’re always looking for new ways to improve the Netflix mobile experience for our members," a Netflix representative said in a statement to Variety. "We run tests in different countries and for different periods of time—and only make them broadly available if people find them useful."

To use the feature, subscribers can enable audio-only mode by selecting a "Video Off" option in the Netflix app. Users must opt-in to use the feature for every title and every session. Interactive content isn’t supported in audio-only mode.

"This also has a very nice accessibility benefit for the blind community, who already take in video content auditorily..."

"It’s important for entertainment companies to offer audio-only options in today's multimedia world," Pete Erickson, the founder of technology network Modev, said in an email interview. "We can take that content in and not be encumbered by the need to have our eyes trained on a screen." 

"Users can also search for specific audio clips that they want to hear," Erickson added. "I had a good friend back in grade school whose parents would record every ‘Star Trek’ episode on cassette tapes (before VHS was commercialized), and they would listen to the episodes while cooking, etc. I think many users would love to hear their favorite shows."

A Possible Renaissance for Audio?

If Netflix’s audio-only option catches on, we might see a renaissance of video production designed to excel at both sound and screen, Max Kalehoff, vice president of marketing at artificial intelligence company Realeyes, said in an email interview. "That means paying greater attention to sound design, music, and dialogue. Other streaming services would likely [follow] suit if it represents a viable way to merchandise existing content and create more usage and loyalty with customers." 

Other streaming services are likely to follow Netflix’s lead to offer audio-only options, Sihi said, adding, "Comments on Hulu’s idea board suggest there is demand for this feature." She pointed out that YouTube already offers a similar feature that allows users to just listen to the audio while playing videos. 

Woman relaxing at home listening to her phone
Ezra Bailey / Getty Images

The ability to listen to shows could also help the visually impaired. "This also has a very nice accessibility benefit for the blind community, who already take in video content auditorily, but this makes it much easier and probably much more searchable in the long run," Erickson said. 

Audio is the fastest growing interface, which was spurred on by in-home assistants, but is now a requirement across platforms, Erickson said. "Major content publishers like Reuters recently rolled out new audio-based services such as their audio archives, which allows publishers to access more than a half-million clips of news content going back to the turn of the 20th century," he added. 

If you’ve been doom scrolling through too much of 2020, this might be the perfect time to start listening to your favorite shows. I know I’m ready to give my eyes a break.

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