The Sneaky Way Cable Networks Are Making You Watch More Commercials

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Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I've increasingly felt that I'm watching more commercials than I did a mere decade before. And that's not because I'm watching more TV -- if anything, I'm watching less live television as streaming video and outside interests take more of my free time. Instead, it feels like the average live TV show has more commercials. Perhaps you've felt that way, too.

Of course, on the surface this sounds downright silly. The average running time of a sitcom hasn't substantively changed in the last decade or so -- with the average one-hour broadcast drama running time clocking in at roughly 42 minutes in 2005, close to its current length -- after dropping from 48 minutes in the '80s. In addition, many shows on cable TV are reruns of fan favorites that were filmed over a decade ago, so it would be difficult to substantively edit the material for commercial purposes.

But according to the The Wall Street Journal, if you're watching cable reruns ofSeinfeld and Friends you may notice the comedic timing differs from what you're used to. So, if you think the Soup Nazi is telling George, "No soup for you" a tad faster than normal, you're right: Networks are speeding up shows and movies to pack in more commercials.

You'd think more ads equals more money... but not reallyCable networks are facing a crisis of sorts: As more individuals choose to cut the cord, cable needs to air more ads to fulfill audience guarantees made to advertisers. If you think of television as a commercial delivery model, falling audience members need to be offset by rising per-audience ad costs or to increase the "unit load" (read: number of commercials) to reward shareholders. If neither happens, then shareholders will experience declining ad-based revenues.

For network shareholders, this is more bad news when it comes to the ad-based business. As advertising dollars follow eyeballs, marketers are now shifting ad dollars to digital with media research firm Magna expecting television ad revenue to drop 1.4% this year. Considering ad dollars are flowing away from television, the first option of charging more for ads is out of the question for networks.

So far, the response to competing for ad based dollars consists of speeding up programming to get the real content: ads. The journal specifically mentions Time Warner's TBS and Viacom's TV Land as culprits of show tampering. And although the WSJ doesn't address the speed of commercials, it's safe to assume they are still regular speed.

Advertisers, shareholders, or viewers, pick two ... or noneOn the surface you'd think this practice would please two stakeholders (advertisers and shareholders) at the expense of viewers, but you'd be wrong. Advertising firm Omnicom Media's president, Chris Geraci, was quoted as saying, "They are trying to deal with a problem in a way that is making the problem bigger." For advertisers, the fear of ad saturation reducing the effectiveness of each individual ad is a legitimate concern.

For shareholders, this is a very myopic policy that will probably alienate current viewers. Recently, Nielsen found that millennials are ditching traditional TV at a "shocking" rate. Forcing a product of decreasing quality on viewers will result in further shifts away from the format altogether. And that's not good for advertisers, shareholders, or the remaining viewers left to pay higher affiliate fees for Chipmunk-like programming.

As for my earlier conspiracy-theorist paranoia, I'll leave you with a quote from Catch-22 author Joseph Heller: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

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Jamal Carnette has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Omnicom Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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