A relatively recent and extremely annoying phenomenon in broadcast media, particularly television, in which the contents of programs are digitally sped up in order to fit more commercials into the allotted time slot. The compression is usually very slight, somewhere around 105 to 120 percent of the original program's speed, and the sound remains the same due to the digital method of speeding the source up.

It can be difficult to notice time-compressed video at times, but usually one or more "telltale" signs are present: for example, zooms and pans may be jerky if the compression system works by dropping a frame here and there. (This is particularly noticable on TNN's broadcast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Songs that show up as background music will be slightly faster, something which may be noticed by a fan of the band that plays it. But usually, there's just a strange subconcious sense of something being not right.

Steelers fans realized something wasn't right on October 14th, 2001: that's when some people noticed that during a game's halftime, KDKA-TV was about thirty seconds out of sync with radio coverage. It turns out KDKA had used a time compression system to squeeze another thirty-second commercial in before the halftime show. Viewers were outraged, and KDKA's director of marketing assured fans that such technology would never be used during the game.

Although I have found no proof to support my theory, it seems to me that WGN's rebroadcast of syndicated Friends episodes uses a variable-rate time compression system: it time-compresses (speeds up) more when there is less action on-screen, less dialogue, and/or less background music; but isn't as aggressive in scenes where it might be more noticable. Watch the episodes for yourself, and see what you think.

The phenomenon is showing up more and more often in talk radio as well: a program called Cash (named that precisely because its goal is to make more) is specifically designed to take audio streams, both recorded and live, and compress them (particularly removing and shortening pauses). Fans of Rush Limbaugh noted at one point, in at least one market, that there were more commercials during his show. The producers had been speeding up his speech and removing pauses in audio in order to cram more advertising in.

The question is, where are we headed as a society when we sit by and let networks not only butcher, but squeeze programs we like in order to sell us more OxiClean? Will we grow complacent with watching things 20% faster than normal? Will the networks then bump things up to be 40% faster than normal? Perhaps one day, our children will watch everything at double speed -- or faster.

But that's okay. After all, it's all in the name of progress. I'm sure the networks know what's best for us. Now, excuse me while I go order my Bowflex.

Addendum: As I sit and watch more Star Trek reruns on TNN Spike TV, I have discovered another artifact of time compression: orchestral background music tends to have odd, periodically-rhythmic popping noises in it, sort of the audio equivalent of the jerky zooms and pans. This is probably an artifact of slicing and dicing the sound samples up and disrupting the continuity of the waveforms.

Additional Update, 10/11/2004: Time compression is becoming more and more prevalent for reruns on both cable and broadcast networks. Watch Northern Exposure on the Hallmark channel, for example, and listen to the opening theme; you will quite distinctly hear the popping artifacts of the compression. It seems that if we want to watch anything at its original speed these days, we'll have to pay for the DVD compilation.

Much, Much Later Update, 7/24/2007: Thanks to Halspal for pointing out that this article was referenced by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette! A little further research today reveals that and one common program called Time Tailor boasts that it has "has repurposed dozens of movies and television shows for broadcast syndication, including Dances with Wolves, Thelma & Louise, Silence of the Lambs, Rocky I-IV, Fargo, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back; and television shows, such as 24, Bernie Mac, Yes Dear, Gilmore Girls, and 7th Heaven." Does it strike anybody else as amusing that a show such as 24, centered around a ticking clock, would be sped up? Also, marvel at the wonderful buzzword "repurposed". Amazing.

The makers of Time Tailor boast that their system does not delete anything, nor does it speed anything up. No, it just systematically removes "redundant" frames from the digital recording. Which, if you're paying attention, means it deletes a whole lot of somethings, and each resulting deletion speeds things up (by 1/29.97th of a second, for NTSC video). But let's not let pesky things like the definitions of words get in the way of our marketspeak.

They also claim that "time reduction from 3 to 5% or more is achieved in a way that is virtually undetectable to the viewer/listener." Here, I'm guessing, "virtually undetectable" is being "repurposed" to mean something like "eminently detectable."

No wonder people are turning to DVD rips off of BitTorrent, illegal though they may be.


Don't make me use my sarcasm tags!
Thanks to J. Random Softlinker for pointing out the proper spelling of OxiClean.

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