A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 21, 2015

To Counter Effects of Online Competition, Cable TV Networks Are Speeding Up Shows To Squeeze in More Ads

It's not your imagination. If you think voices of the actors are sounding squeakier, your ears are not to blame. Neither is your television or computer.

Cable TV companies are using compression technology to increase the speed at which some shows and movies are being in shown in order to squeeze in more advertisements.

They are fighting competition from digital platforms, including streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. The consumer pivot to the computer or smartphone has caused a drop in cable viewership and a resulting decline in advertising income.

The cable companies thought they were being clever by making it up on volume, but, as the following article explains, they may actually be doing themselves even more damage.

Advertisers are concerned that packing ever more spots into traditional time slots will annoy viewers and drive even more of them to seek alternatives. They are also concerned that the impact of their ads will be negatively affected by increasing the number of them.

As if that weren't enough, the studios that produce the shows and movies being adulterated believe it reduces the quality of the experience and maybe harming both the shows' ratings and their actors' reputations.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, but not all technological solutions produce the desired results. JL

Joe Flint reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Cable-TV networks use the more densely packed ads to counterbalance sinking viewership and a stagnant ad market. But the growing ad clutter is (causing) worry that oversaturation of commercials will reduce the effectiveness of spots and drive viewers to commercial free streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.
When Stephen Cox was watching “The Wizard of Oz” on TBS last November, something didn’t sound quite right to him about the Munchkins, who are near and dear to his heart.
“Their voices were raised a notch,” said Mr. Cox, the author of several pop- culture books including one about the classic 1939 film. “It was astounding to me.”
He wasn’t imagining things. Time Warner Inc. ’s TBS used compression technology to speed up the movie. The purpose: stuffing in more TV commercials.
As they contend with steep ratings declines, many top cable networks are jamming more ads into programming to meet audience guarantees made to advertisers and prop up revenue despite falling ad prices.Tinkering with shows to squeeze more advertising dollars out of them has been done before. Cable networks have long made room for ads by shortening the opening credits. Reruns of “Law & Order” on TNT have a 24-second opening, in contrast to the original 1 minute, 45-second opening when it aired on NBC.

But speeding up the actual content is a more subtle tactic TV networks use to achieve a higher volume of ads. TBS also has sped up sitcom reruns of “Seinfeld” and other shows, and sister network TNT has also employed the approach as well. Viacom Inc. ’s TV Land has done the same with “Friends” reruns.
“It doesn’t look like ‘The Keystone Kops,’ but you can tell by the voices,” said Mr. Cox of the tampered shows.
Cable-TV networks use the more densely packed ads to counterbalance sinking viewership and a stagnant cable ad market. But the growing ad clutter is rubbing advertisers, content owners and Hollywood’s creative community the wrong way.
Marketers worry that an oversaturation of commercials will reduce the effectiveness of their spots and drive more viewers away from watching traditional TV to commercial-free streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.
“It is important for us to consider the effect this is having on the viewer experience,” said Jackie Kulesza, executive vice president and director of video at Starcom USA. “We want to ensure our message is seen by receptive viewers.”
Commercial clutter increased for many cable channels in December, according to a Nielsen analysis of prime time. A&E Network, which is co-owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp., averaged 18 minutes and 39 seconds of commercial time per-hour in prime time, up almost three minutes from December 2013. It sister channel History had 18 minutes and 42 seconds of ad time, up two minutes from the previous year.
Other networks that added commercial time include TBS and Discovery Communications Inc. ’s Discovery Channel and TLC. Many Viacom networks including MTV, TV Land and Spike all have over 20 minutes of non-programming content an hour.
Cable networks haven’t commented publicly on the increased ad volume in recent months. But executives at several companies privately acknowledged that rating declines were the cause.
“It is a way to keep the revenue from going down as much as the ratings,” said a top executive at one major cable programmer. “The only way we can do it is to double down and stretch the unit load a little more.”
Critics say the practice is misguided.
“They are trying to deal with a problem in a way that is making the problem bigger,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast at media buyer Omnicom Media Group of the practice of increasing the commercial loads to make up for declining ratings.
Broadcast networks have boosted their average commercial time per-hour as well but the increases aren’t nearly as large. Broadcast networks and local TV stations also typically have less commercial clutter than cable.
Most of the ad clutter is in reruns and movies that are a large part of a typical cable network’s schedule. The studios that sell the reruns are concerned that the glut of commercials and the lower ratings that seem to follow will decrease the value of their shows down the road.
“It has gotten completely out of control,” said the distribution head of one major television studio. “I’m concerned when you look at the performance being diminished and hurt by their running the shows that way.”Some studio executives say shortening TV shows through compression (speeding them up) could run afoul of contracts between networks and studios. “They are not allowed to do anything to the content. They have to run it in the way it is delivered,” the distribution chief said.
A senior executive at one major cable programmer said the speeding up of shows, which is done by removing repetitive video frames, is usually a last resort. However, the practice, which has gone on for decades, seems to have become more prevalent in the past few years.
“Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman, already upset at how opening and closing credits are “squashed,” doesn’t like networks tinkering with the running time of shows to add more commercials and compares it to the colorization of black and white movies.
“It feels wrong,” she said. “It is not how it was shot, written or imagined. It wasn’t meant to be ”


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