Copyright concerns dampen viral vigor

Sites like YouTube come into question

Just hours after Comedy Central aired the 10th season premiere of “South Park” last month, thousands of folks who missed it on TV had watched a version of the episode uploaded by a fan to viral video Web site YouTube.

The good news for Comedy Central? The combination of major media coverage and the widespread availability of the clip put the show smack dab in the middle of the zeitgeist for a few days. The network’s PR team hardly had to lift a finger.

There was just one problem with the whole scenario: Whoever uploaded the “South Park” seg to YouTube broke the law. What’s more, there’s no telling how many more people would have caught the advertiser-supported repeat of the show on Comedy Central — or paid to legally download the show via iTunes — had they not seen it for free on YouTube.

It’s no wonder TV types have no idea what to do about viral videos. “You’ve got to walk the fine line between letting people virally distribute your content without paying for it and allowing them to cut into your revenues and somehow acquiesce to copyright infringement,” says NBC U West Coast topper Marc Graboff.

NBC knows all too well the risks and rewards of sites such as YouTube.

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” caught major buzz in December, when fans spontaneously began sharing clips of “Lazy Sunday,” a short parody of vintage Beasty Boys music videos featuring cast members Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell recounting in rap their Manhattan journey to get cupcakes and see “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Millions of people were exposed to the clip via the Net, giving “SNL” a relevancy it hadn’t had since the 2000 election.

Still, NBC’s lawyers weren’t so happy — by allowing the clip to remain posted to YouTube, they feared, the Peacock was sanctioning copyright infringement.

“The minute you tacitly allow copyright infringement, you’ve prejudiced your right to make a claim,” Graboff says. “We had to do something about it.”

Almost as irksome as the copyright concerns: The idea that the Peacock was helping turn a relatively obscure Web site like YouTube into a hugely valuable Internet asset — without any compensations whatsoever.

So more than a month after “Lazy Sunday” first broke out, NBC demanded YouTube pull the clip, forcing viewers to either buy it at iTunes or watch it on NBC.com. And when another so-called “SNL Digital Short” popped up on YouTube — this one featuring Natalie Portman as a gansta rapper — NBC’s legal eagles quickly sprang into action, forcing the clip off the site within hours.

NBC has now set up a section on its own Web site that allows viewers to email clips from “SNL” and other shows to friends. But the network decides which clips get posted, making them anything but viral.

Peacock execs are hardly the only ones cracking down on viral videos.

CBS News pounced when a viewer innocently posted a tear-jerking report on an autistic high school hoops player who single-handedly helped his team win a big game. And 20th Century Fox TV has been vigilant in rooting out “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons” and “American Dad” clips from unauthorized sites, though users still try to post their favorite scenes.

Some producers aren’t so sure nets and studios need to be as harsh in their reaction to viral videos.

“This is how teenagers today communicate,” says “American Dad” co-creator Mike Barker. “It’s a way for them to show their colors. There’s no reason short clips shouldn’t be spread virally. It’s a disease that I would relish.”

Barker and others are less happy about fans who post entire episodes of a show online, since that’s much more likely to cut into potential backend profits.

But as long as the clips are relatively short, and don’t come close to replicating the experience of actual TV viewing, viral videos are essentially free advertising, Barker says.

“If you let people experience ‘American Dad’ (online), then maybe it will bring eyeballs to the network,” he says.

Cablers like VH1 are already finding ways to strike official partnerships with services like YouTube, while movie studios continue to embrace the medium.

And even Graboff thinks TV and the net will find a way to co-exist.

“I think it will shake out where there’s an accomodation between (the Web sites) and networks who want their content out there in a way that’s more viral,” he says.