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Catching the viral video

Last Updated March 10, 2006

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If you want to listen to a new song that's just come out, you have a few choices. You can pay for the CD, pay for an authorized download or you can download it for free from a peer-to-peer file-sharing system, such as BitTorrent. The copyright holder on that song might not like it, but current Canadian law says it's legal.

If you want to see a movie, you can buy a ticket to the theatre, wait for the DVD to come out, or you can download it for free and risk getting a poor-quality screener with visible time-codes, Russian dialog and Korean subtitles (I know that seems like an unlikely combination, but I've actually seen the Russo-Korean version of Revenge of the Sith.)

But if you want to see an episode of a TV show you missed, your options for doing so without stepping on the toes of the copyright holder are few.

If you were lucky enough to remember to tape it, good for you. If a friend remembered to tape it and you want to borrow the tape, only the strictest of copyright lawyers would deny you that. ("It's not personal use! It's distribution! Bark, bark, bark.") If you know a guy who tapes every episode of this show, and go to him for a copy of one of his tapes, the legal waters get a little murkier.

(I knew a guy in university who taped every episode of his favourite shows, like Star Trek and Babylon 5. His bedroom was filled floor to ceiling with videotapes, leaving only a path from the door to his computer. His entire collection could probably fit on a single hard drive, now.)

Like the song and the movie, you might be able to find your missing show on a P2P file-sharing network. After Napster and its ilk became popular in the early part of this decade, the music industry eventually supplied the demand for downloading individual tracks, leading to legitimate services, such as iTunes. Now, the TV industry is beginning to see the value of selling downloads of individual episodes of TV shows.

Episodes of Lost, Battlestar Galactica and The Daily Show, all popular downloads on BitTorrent, are now available on the iTunes Music Store. Apple has partnered with NBC, ABC and other networks to sell video content, while Google Video has made a deal with CBS, to offer downloads of CSI and Survivor, among other shows. Unfortunately, all of these TV show downloads are available to American, credit-card-holding consumers only.

On March 10, 2006, The New York Times reported that Amazon is holding talks with Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios and Warner Brothers to create a service that could compete with iTunes, where you could download not only TV shows, but Hollywood movies, too.

But the real story of video online isn't in the half-hour sitcom or the hour-long serial drama, but in the link to a two-minute clip that lands in your e-mail. As more people get broadband internet access, the "viral" video is replacing the forwarded e-mail joke.

YouTube, like Google Video and other video sharing sites, is intended to be a service for sharing video that you shoot or edit yourself, just as Flickr is a site for sharing photos. YouTube's slogan is "Broadcast Yourself," and you can certainly find lots of homemade video, like teenagers lip-syncing into a webcam, if that's your thing.

But YouTube is most famous for propagating viral videos, short clips of the amusing, odd or amazing that get spread through blogs and e-mail inboxes. Some viral videos are put online by their creators, but many are under copyright and put online without authorization.

On Dec. 17, 2005, Saturday Night Live aired a music video called "Lazy Sunday," a parody of gangster rap featuring a couple of guys waking up late, eating cupcakes for breakfast and sneaking junk food into a showing of The Chronicles of Narnia.

The parody struck a chord with internet audiences with its nerdy references to Google Maps and quotable one-liners. Fans produced T-shirts based on one of the video's signature lines. Online reviews were gushing. The Village Voice, in its review of the skit, wondered if the spoof was "better than actual rap." Slate said that while "Lazy Sunday" may not save SNL, it could save hip-hop.

While "Lazy Sunday" was first broadcast on TV, it owes most of its popularity to viral propagation on the web. It appeared on YouTube and Google Video, and was viewed millions of times online. NBC saw they had a hit on their hands and put the video on the iTunes Music Store as a free download (It's now a $2 download, again, available only in the U.S.).

But in February 2006, NBC asked YouTube to take down all the copies of "Lazy Sunday" from its site, along with any clips of the 2006 Winter Olympics. Around the same time, NBC put up its own page for its viral hits, with this disclaimer:

"Now, instead of searching the web for 'borrowed' NBC highlights, you can go to the source! We've taken your viral favorites and gathered them into one convenient location."

Initially, though, it was only a convenient location for those using a PC running Windows and browsing with Internet Explorer. NBC has since fixed the page so Firefox and Mac users can view the clip.

But not all TV producers want the video clips taken down. Of the shows at the CBC, the Rick Mercer Report is the most popular on video sharing sites. The show puts all of its clips on its website, and its producers say they don't intend to ask other sites hosting the clips to take them down.

"They think it's good publicity, so they're happy with it," says David McCaughna, publicist for RMR and Royal Canadian Air Farce.

Slowly, networks and producers are starting to see how people would rather watch their content. Whenever they want, not Wednesday night at nine o�clock. On their laptop or iPod, not just on TV. And just the best clip from SNL, not the whole show. Especially that last half-hour. Ouch.

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