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Cable networks are speeding up TV shows to cram in ads

If "Seinfeld" sounds funnier to you than normal, you're right.

TBS is one of the cable networks that are speeding up their content in order to squeeze more commercials inside their ad breaks, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. The strategy has been noted on TBS' repeats of "Seinfeld," as well as its airing last fall of "The Wizard of Oz."

The technique has emerged after a steep ratings decline for many cable networks, thanks to millions of consumers migrating to Internet video services such as Hulu. But the networks' solution to fixing a revenue shortfall could have an unintended consequence: By packing in even more ads, their remaining viewers could get fed up with the clutter and ditch cable in favor of video services that cut out the ads, such as Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN) Prime.

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The networks that are using compression technology to speed up their shows include Time Warner's (TWX) TBS, which sped up "The Wizard of Oz" last November and used the technology on repeats of "Seinfeld," according to the Journal (To see a comparison of two "Seinfeld" clips, one normal speed and the other at the faster rate, click here.) Viacom's (VIA) TV Land has also used the same strategy with "Friends" repeats.

Cable networks are also using strategies such as cutting down opening credits to make more time for ads.

The sped-up TV shows are emerging as cable-advertising sales encountered headwinds last year, thanks to lower ratings. With cable networks trying to squeeze more money out of every hour, that's caused a sharp ramp-up in commercial minutes.

Five years ago, the average commercial time on cable TV was 14.5 minutes, but that reached 15.8 minutes last year, according to data from Nielsen cited by The Journal.

Viewers are also seeing more ads because cable networks are selling more shorter spots, with a surge in the number of 15-second commercials at the expense of 30-second ads. That switch in the mix of ad lengths and longer commercial breaks overall means that cable networks are reaping more in advertising revenue, even though the cost of a 30-second spot in primetime declined from 2009 to 2013.

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Although the new strategies might bolster cable networks' revenue in the short term, they risk alienating viewers over the long-term. It may be no coincidence that such ad-stuffing strategies are emerging just as cord-cutting becomes a very real phenomenon.

Cable TV subscriptions rose at a compound average annual rate of 6.1 percent from 1995 to 2013, the Federal Communications Commission reported last year. That's more than double the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index, which rose at a compound average annual rate of 2.4 percent during the same period.

What that boils down to is that consumers, many of whom are suffering from stagnant wages, are paying much more for cable service than ever before. At the same time, they are effectively being asked to sit through the indignities of sped-up dialogue and increasingly long ad breaks.

It's no wonder that "cord-cutting" is now a verb. With the pay TV industry shedding about 179,000 customers in the third quarter alone, it's now become what should be a worrying trend for the cable networks and providers.

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