Bootleg Buffy

As fans of a certain TV show could tell you, digital pirates can put quite the bite on a network

The Internet-circulated digital bootleg copy of the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer hardly looks like a history-making production. 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 portentousness. It's hard not to get off on the sneaky rebellion you feel watching something that was pulled from American airwaves only to be piped through the Net by entertainment-industry freedom fighters. "Graduation" was destined for contrabandhood since late May, when execs from the WB television network delayed its scheduled airing, fearful of the post-Littleton reaction to its climactic scene--in which the title character arms her graduating class with flamethrowers and medieval weapons to fight the mayor, who has turned into a 60-foot serpent during his commencement speech. Pretty standard stuff for a Buffy adventure, but the WB suits decided it was too risky.

Now, even as they prepare to broadcast the episode this Tuesday, July 13, they're paying the price. Fandom in the Webbed world is no longer just a complacent pastime; it's an interactivity 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, so too did fans take up a crusade to bring the suppressed program to the public. And they feel fully justified in 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 proprietor of the Buffy Cross & Stake site (www.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 WB has relied heavily on the Net to reach out to fans. The network's Dawson's Creek site, for instance, contains elements that complement and expand on the viewing experience of that show, including a copy of the movie script the character Dawson writes and is always whining about. Now the groupies who were cultivated with the interactive 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, curator of digital media at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. "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]." Television and movies now can be pirated simply and inexpensively with a PC, a video card, a VCR, and an encoder--the crude video-editing system that likely was used to steal Buffy from the air when WB broadcast it in Canada, on schedule.

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 about 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, "Graduation" went viral via fan sites, making it virtually impossible to detect and inoculate each carrier. According to posts on message boards, WB and Buffy producer 20th Century Fox are "politely" asking offending sites to drop the material. (Neither company would comment for this story.)

None of this bodes well for Hollywood's traditional entertainment-distribution model. Though Buffy fans feel their actions are noble--particularly since they're not seeking financial gain from them--other video poachers are likely to have different motivations. Until a technology can be developed to make its products copy-proof, Hollywood will either have to embrace Internet distribution (as the music industry is grudgingly beginning to do in light of the popularity of MP3 music files), bootleg its own work as a marketing ploy (Carl Goodman's suggestion), or try to contain the bootlegging.

WB and Fox network officials, who have denounced the digitization of their property, have little to say about the possibility that 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 inspired an expression among pirates--"getting Foxed," or 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 until 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 puts it, "Anything that turns into ones or zeroes is going to be trouble."

The Museum of the Moving Image's Goodman is more enthralled than fearful. The ramifications of a black-market Buffy strike him as compelling enough that, legalities aside, he's considering making the RealMedia version of "Graduation" 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."

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