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Censored ‘SNL’ Sketch Jumps Bleepless Onto the Internet December 22, 2006

Posted by Dan in Funny, News, Snipets, Video.
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I’m honestly very happy that broadcasting networks are seeing the Internet as a way of bypassing FCC content restrictions. But, its a shame they have to. In an ideal world, “freedom of speech” would mean “freedom of speech.”

The nearly three-minute digital film, shown on “Saturday Night Live”last Saturday, was a parody of two boy-band singers (including one played by the real Justin Timberlake)crooning a holiday song about making a gift to their girlfriends of their male anatomy, which they appeared to have wrapped in boxes(strategically placed) and then topped with bows.

Given the subject matter, it was little surprise that NBC bleeped a recurring word in the chorus 16times. But soon after the broadcast concluded at 1 a.m. Sunday, viewerswho’d seen the bit on TV (and others who had just heard about it) could find the uncensored version on-line. That’s because the network itelf had placed it on its own Web site (nbc.com) and YouTube.com, under the headings “Special Treat in a Box” or “Special Christmas Box.”

In less than a week the official uncensored version of the video has been viewed by over two million people on YouTube alone.In the process “Saturday Night Live” appears to have become the first scripted comedy on a broadcast network to use the Web to make an end-run around the prying eyes of both its internal censors and those of the Federal Communications Commission, whose jurisdiction over “Saturday Night Live” effectively ends at the Web frontier.

Lorne Michaels,the creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” cautioned in an interview that the strategy of treating Internet users to the equivalent of an authorized “director’s cut” of his late-night show“will be the exception” going forward. But he also predicted that other shows and networks, time and money permitting, would surely followNBC’s lead in making available material that was deemed not ready for prime time, or even late night. “My sense is that, as always, now that the door has been opened, some things will go through it,” he said.

For“Saturday Night Live” the ubiquity of “Special Treat” on the Web this week has proved to be yet another digital stake planted firmly in unexplored ground. Almost a year ago a rap parody from the show(featuring two characters waxing rhapsodic about eating cupcakes and watching “The Chronicles of Narnia” on the Upper West Side) became one of the first bootleg videos to demonstrate the vast potential of YouTube, the portal through which millions of viewers were able to see it. (While NBC quickly ordered YouTube to take down the video, which was titled “Lazy Sunday” and protected by copyright, the network later reached agreement with the Web site to showcase copyrighted material from its shows, including “The Office” and “Saturday Night Live,” on a dedicated page stocked by the network itself.)

The common denominator in “Special Treat” and “Lazy Sunday” — as well as another“Saturday Night Live” favorite on You Tube featuring the actress Natalie Portmanand her supposed bad-girl side — is a performer on the show, Andy Samberg, and a supporting cast of producers he brought with him to“Saturday Night Live” from a pioneering Web site called Lonely Island.

The idea for “Special Treat” was hatched, Mr. Samberg said, when Mr.Michaels called him into his office last Tuesday and asked that he try to write something funny that would showcase the singing skills of Mr.Timberlake, who was both the host and musical guest.

Mr. Sambergand his colleagues — including Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone —presented a rough draft of the song to Mr. Timberlake on Thursdayafternoon, and after they reworked it to his specifications, theyrecorded the voice track on special equipment in Mr. Samberg’s officearound midnight. They spent Friday and much of Saturday filming thevideo in and around New York, and not until 4 p.m. Saturday — less thaneight hours before the show was to go live — was the video insufficient shape to be shown to the NBC executive responsible forlate-night programming, Rick Ludwin.

While the show’s producershad already concluded on their own that the video would have to bebleeped to be broadcast, they had a special request for Mr. Ludwin:Would he permit the uncensored version to be made available on the Web?

“Myfirst instinct, without having seen anything, was that we probablyshouldn’t do that,” Mr. Ludwin said later in an interview. “My thoughtwas that even though it’s going on the Internet, it’s stillrepresenting NBC. But I hadn’t seen it yet. So I said it would dependon how dirty it was.”

Drawing close to a monitor adjacent to theshow’s vaunted eighth-floor studio, Mr. Ludwin watched as Mr.Timberlake (in a blond wig) and Mr. Samberg (decked out with aclose-cropped beard that made him look like the pop singer’s twinbrother) sang of the various holidays on which they wanted to presenttheir special gift (including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa) and the varioussettings (including backstage at the Country Music Association Awards.)

“Wewere all laughing,” said Mr. Ludwin, who had been accompanied by arepresentative from the NBC legal department. And then Mr. Ludwin saidhe had a change of heart.

“Those people who go on the Internetwill not be shocked by this,” Mr. Ludwin recalled thinking. “Obviouslythere are some people who will be offended. Those people are probablyunlikely to go searching for it on the Internet. It’s just funny.”

Still,the material was touchy enough, Mr. Ludwin said, that he sought finalapproval for the Web version of the video from the highest echelons ofNBC, including Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment , and Jeff Zucker,chief executive of NBC Universal Television Group.. Both approved theidea, he said. Another executive suggested that a disclaimer be placedbefore the Web-only version of the video that warned of its explicitcontent, a proposal that was immediately accepted.

As yet anotherproduction featuring Mr. Samberg spreads like electronic wildfire, theperformer said he was pleased that the show was becoming so adept atfinding alternate routes to viewers, beyond the 6.5 million who, onaverage, watch the show on NBC each Saturday night, according toNielsen Media Research. (A figure that is down slightly since last yearat this time.)

“A sign now of success with a certain audiencewhen you do a short comedy piece, anywhere, is that it gets on YouTubeand gets around,” Mr. Samberg said. “It’s always something you’rethinking about unconsciously. It’s not our main objective. But there’sno part of us that doesn’t want to be on YouTube.”

Which is notto say that NBC intends to make such decisions lightly in the future.“We’re still not going to put just anything out there,” said JeffGaspin, president of digital content for NBC Universal. “We still haveto protect the brands.”

Seth Meyers, the show’s head writer, saidthat he and Mr. Michaels were also mindful that sometimes the funniestmaterial — whether on their show, or Howard Stern’s radio show — was borne of butting up against boundaries, either from the outside or self-imposed.

Sizingup the two versions of the “Special Treat” video, Mr. Meyers observed,“The most interesting thing is that it’s actually not funnieruncensored.”

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