Netflix is testing an audio-only mode to compete with podcasts and audiobooks
The new feature would allow subscribers to stream shows and movies without video.
Netflix is testing a new audio-only mode with a subset of its Android users, according to code snippets found in the latest version of its Android app. The feature allows users to stream just the audio track of a show or movie in the background. This would effectively allow for a listening experience that's similar to podcasts or audiobooks, while also cutting down on data consumption.
XDA Developers was first to report about the new test after spotting related code lines in Netflix's latest Android app. "Save your data by turning off the video and listening to your favorite shows," one of the snippets found in the app explains. "The video is off, but you can continue listening to your show while you are busy doing other things," another text string notes.
Netflix did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
This isn't the first time that Netflix has experimented with an audio-only experience. Back in 2017, a team of Netflix engineers developed an "audiobook mode" as part of one of the company's hack days. The company regularly hosts these hack day events to encourage creative experiments, but most hack day projects never turn into actual product features.
Netflix also regularly tests new features with subsets of its audience, and only implements these features after tests show a clear positive impact on engagement and retention. Still, an audio-only feature would make a lot of sense for the service. Netflix has long produced stand-up comedy specials that would work well in an audio-only experience.
More recently, Netflix has also experimented with what can best be described as audiobooks with video. As part of its efforts to spotlight Black creators, Netflix recently teamed up with Black celebrities like Tiffany Haddish, Lupita Nyong'o and Jill Scott to read children's books from Black authors.
Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings in particular has also long made the argument that the company doesn't just compete with other streaming services, but with anything that its users spend their time on. "We compete for a share of members' time and spending for relaxation and stimulation," the company states in its long-term view for investors, which calls out video gaming, web browsing and magazine reading as just some examples.
"We strive to win more of our members' 'moments of truth,'" the long-term view document continues. "Those decision points are, say, at 7:15 p.m. when a member wants to relax, enjoy a shared experience with friends and family, or is bored. The member could choose Netflix or a multitude of other options."
An audio-only mode could arguably help Netflix win more of those moments by providing an alternative to podcasts and audiobooks.
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.