The Following Film Has Been Modified to Fit

Joe Flint, writing for the Wall Street Journal‘s Digital microsite, exposes cable TV networks that compress programming content, such as when TBS broadcast The Wizard of Oz last November, to fit in more advertisements in the same block of time.

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.

A colleague, who forwarded the article earlier today, called the apparently unprecedented practice “scary.”

But is it, really?

First, is this even new? I thought this was already standard practice, especially for movies broadcast on television. I remember watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) on Comedy Central in the 1990s with my roommate Rick. It was a movie we knew well, having seen it dozens of times between the two of us. We had even seen it on 35mm film, paired with Election (1999), at a double-feature at the New Beverly Cinema, in Los Angeles at the end of the Clinton Administration. But with this Comedy Central screening, we could tell something was off.

To confirm our suspicions, Rick fetched his VHS copy of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to screen it and compare it to the broadcast version. Going back and forth between the cable net’s feed and the VHS deck, we verified that Comedy Central had indeed sped up the movie. It was most evident when Edward R. Rooney proclaims that, because of kids like Ferris, he “weeps for the future.” The voice of Jeffrey Jones, who played Rooney, was easily an octave higher on the broadcast than it was on the VHS version.1

Jeffrey Jones, playing Edward R. Rooney, in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Edward R. Rooney weeps for the future.

From then on, we noticed this practice on countless other Comedy Central movie broadcasts, too. I guess once you see something like that, you can never unsee it.

Second, I’m guilty of having sped up screenings in class. In a few cases, after a lengthy lecture and class discussion, it was clear that we were going to go over time. To fit the screening, I have played a H.264 file from my Mac using VLC, which has a playback-speed control. I’ve gone as high as 104% but usually keep it at 102% or so. When I’ve sped up a screening, I’ve previewed it to ensure the playback doesn’t appear off, and I’ve only used it on films where pacing or tempo is not a significant element of the filmmaking. I’ve done it for films like Flaming Creatures and Sins of the Fleshapoids, where a viewer would be too preoccupied with horror or laughter, respectively, to notice a 2% increase in speed. However, I would never speed up a screening of a film by Alfred Hitchcock, Stan Brakhage, or Maya Deren. In those cases, the pacing and rhythm are really important dimensions of their filmmaking.

Maya Deren in <em>At Land</em>

Maya Deren, in At Land, can take as much time as she needs in my class.

Finally, is this even a big deal? The whole screening experience—in a classroom or on television—is already compromised. We watch with cheap projectors and television monitors that produce rainbow and soap opera effects. We listen with low-fi sound systems that don’t reproduce a full range of sounds. And, for decades, we have watched films that have been panned, scanned and center-cut to fit the aspect ratio of our TV sets.

It’s not like I’m cutting out scenes.

  1. Disclaimer: I don’t actually know what an octave is. 

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