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The bootleg copy of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season finale is hardly a technical triumph. The picture is a murky, pixelated haze; the sound is out of sync; and the lengthy action scene at the end looks so choppy and crude it might have been produced by Hanna-Barbera.
But what the digitized version of this episode, titled "Graduation Day, Part Two," lacks in viewability it makes up for many times over in the portentous-ambience department. It's hard not to get off on the sense of sneaky rebellion you feel watching something that was pulled from U.S. airwaves only to be piped through the Net by entertainment freedom fighters who probably aren't yet old enough to drive. "Graduation" became virtual contraband when execs from the WB television network delayed showing it in fear of the post-Littleton reaction to the climactic scene, in which the title character arms her graduating class with flamethrowers and medieval weapons (no guns in sight, though the picture is obscure) to fight the mayor during his commencement speech/transformation into a 60-foot serpent from hell. Pretty standard stuff for a Buffy adventure, but the WB suits decided it was too risky.
Now they're paying the price. With a turbo boost from the Web, fandom is no longer just a complacent pastime but an activity with the potential to become an uprising at any moment. Just as Buffy's Sunnydale graduating class of 1999 banded together to fight a demonic authority figure (an obvious satire of politics and bad graduation speakers, not school violence), so too have fans taken up a crusade to bring the lost program to the public and they feel fully justified doing it.
"The WB has always been aware of the strong following behind this show, and they couldn't possibly have not expected us to fight," says Michelle, the 16-year-old proprietress of the Buffy Cross & Stake site (slayer.simplenet.com/tbcs). "The WB feels it's unfair that we're spreading the episode around, but we feel it's unfair that we didn't get to see it in the first place."
This turn of events is rather poetic, given that the WB has relied heavily on the Net to reach out to fans. The Dawson's Creek site, for instance, contains elements that complement and expand on the viewing experience, including a copy of the movie script Dawson writes and whines about (among lots of other things) all the time on the show. Now the groupies who were cultivated with the medium have used that very tool as a weapon against the network.
"I guess the appropriate cliché here is live by the sword, die by the sword," says Carl Goodman, the curator of digital media at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. "If you want to reap the benefits of the Internet as a huge direct-marketing vehicle for media, you also have to accept the fact that it can be used to do an end run around [you]."
Now, sooner rather than later, the entertainment industry will also have to deal with a larger issue: the unauthorized distribution of its products over the Net. Television and movies can be pirated simply and inexpensively with a PC, a video card, a VCR, and an encoder, the crude video-editing system that was likely used to steal Buffy from the air. It's easy enough to download the four RealMedia files containing "Graduation"; they range in size from 2.7 to 4.7 megabytes and require around 20 minutes apiece to fetch over a 56K connection. The trick is finding them. Before GeoCities could shut down the page that supposedly originated the data by way of Canada (which would explain the commercial for Ontario Bank), where the show aired on schedule, "Graduation" went viral on fan sites, making it virtually impossible to detect and inoculate each carrier. According to posts on message boards, Buffy producer 20th Century Fox and the WB are "politely" asking offending sites to drop the material (neither company will comment).
This does not bode well for Hollywood's traditional entertainment distribution model. Though Buffy fans feel their actions are noble, especially since they're not seeking financial gain from them, other video poachers out there are likely to have different motivations. For instance, rumored to be floating about the Net is a copy of Star Wars: Episode One that can be tucked neatly into a hard drive. JUDGECAL, a producer at New York content studio Pseudo, says the reproduction is the handiwork of a small community of video pirates whose currency is one-upmanship being first to make a facsimile, producing the best version not profit. Still, the MPEG encoders he says they use for their hobby are readily accessible to greedy people. Until a technology can be developed to make its products copy-proof, Hollywood will have to embrace Internet distribution (as the music industry is grudgingly considering in light of the popularity of MP3 music files), bootleg its own work as a marketing ploy (Goodman's suggestion), or try to contain the situation. JUDGECAL says the last is highly unlikely to result in success.
"There's really not a lot they can do," he says. "They're going to have to send out videotapes to reviewers beforehand if they want their movies [and shows] reviewed, and you have to rely on the scruples of the reviewer. So the weak link in the chain is the human factor."
The WB and Fox, which have denounced the digitization of their property, had little to say about the larger situation brewing, wherein all their products could be up for grabs in cyberspace. Steve Feldstein, vice president of marketing and communications for Fox, offered only this comment: "Fox is very serious about protecting its property. We work closely with the Motion Picture Association and other organizations to thwart all piracy."
These words aren't as hollow as they sound. Fox has developed such a reputation for protecting its copyrights that the company has inspired an expression among pirates "getting Foxed," the condition of having your site shut down by a corporation. But unauthorized data trafficking is nearly impossible to stop; and it's only a matter of time before illicit pay-per-view systems emerge, if they haven't already. As a source who wanted to be referred to only as "an industry shithead" dejectedly put it, "Anything that turns into ones or zeros is going to be trouble."
Goodman is not so fearful. The ramifications of black-market Buffy strike him as compelling enough that, legalities aside, he is considering making "Graduation" the RealMedia version part of the museum's collection.
"This is part of a very interesting story, the very finely woven relationship between established media and new media," he says. "In this instance, new media isn't replacing television it's about the back-and-forth dialogue between them. . . . The Internet is not television; its strength right now is that it's the anti-television."