‘South Park’ Episode Lives

Apr 3, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The now-infamous Scientology episode of “South Park” is out of the closet.

Since Comedy Central pulled the repeat of the episode “Trapped in the Closet” from its schedule last month, the episode has nevertheless been available to viewers online, where fans posted it in droves on file-sharing sites.

On YouTube.com alone, versions of “Closet” posted during the past two months have generated more than 700,000 views, according to data on the site last Thursday.

An online petition on ChefGate.info garnered more than 5,000 signatures to protest the

network’s pulling the episode and linked to the episode on Xenutv.com, an anti-Scientology site.

Though big media companies such as NBC Universal and CBS Corp. have thrown their weight against YouTube in recent weeks

over its illegal use of copyrighted video, MTV Networks’ Comedy Central, which like CBS is owned by Viacom, has so far looked the other way at the online proliferation of the controversial “South Park” episode, just as it has with bootlegging of the hot-button show in the past. An MTV Networks spokesman confirmed the company has not asked YouTube to pull the show, but declined further comment for this report.

By staying mum, in effect allowing unauthorized play of a copyrighted Comedy Central television show, Comedy Central executives appear to be coming out winners.

Fans Flock to Premiere

The new media-assisted fan rebellion against the removal very well may have helped the network’s ratings. The first “South Park” episode to follow the flap, the 10th-season premiere “The Return of Chef,” was the show’s highest-rated season premiere since 2002 and up 21 percent over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Also, the show is selling briskly on iTunes-last week the season premiere was No. 4 in video sales, according to iTunes.

“The vibe is the programming is doing really well, iTunes is doing well, and we know our quality is better than on the file-sharing sites,” one MTV Networks source said. “So from what we can see, it’s not impacting our sales.”

Such postings technically constitute a violation of the show’s copyright. But according to sources within MTV Networks and Comedy Central, the company does not mind the online proliferation of the show.

That the Scientology furor has actually benefited Comedy Central plays in stark contrast to how the network appeared to have fared in media reports after yanking the episode.

The move was widely considered to be a result of a decision high up the Viacom ladder and against the wills of executives at Comedy Central and of “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. This made the Comedy crew appear powerless, and it compromised the bold, irreverent reputation the network had earned in the days when it was operated more independently, as a co-venture of Viacom and Time Warner.

The episode in question, which originally ran in November, mocked Scientology’s tenets and depicted one of the religion’s most notable practitioners, actor Tom Cruise, as having locked himself in a closet for various plot reasons. In the days last month before Comedy Central planned to televise the repeat, “South Park” cast member and Scientologist Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef, quit the show in protest.

A few days later, Comedy Central canceled a planned rerun of the episode. Industry blogs speculated that Comedy Central was forced to pull the show because Mr. Cruise was displeased with the episode. Mr. Cruise is in the upcoming Paramount film “Mission: Impossible III.” Paramount, like Comedy Central, is owned by Viacom. The movie star’s spokesman has denied the charge.

“South Park” clips and episodes have long been popular online bootlegs. With its crude animation and raunchy content, the show’s impact is not reduced by video compression, and MTV Networks has often looked the other way as popular “South Park” content has spread online.

“Historically, MTV Networks has always seen the online distribution of clips as a great marketing device,” said one MTV Networks source, though the source also noted posting entire episodes is typically looked upon more critically.

“Trapped in the Closet” first appeared on YouTube in February. Julie Supan, senior director of marketing for the site, said YouTube does not police the content of its service because more than 35,000 videos are posted daily. “We rely on the content providers to alert us to what is unauthorized video,” she said.

Online Viewing Matters

Though the “Closet” episode’s half-million-plus YouTube views may not be enough to rank it among the site’s top videos, most viral clips run anywhere from a few seconds to a couple minutes-much shorter than a 22-minute “South Park” episode. Also, last season of “South Park” averaged about 2.6 million viewers, making a half-million online views significant.

In mid-March, YouTube pulled a full-length copy of “Trapped in the Closet” from its Web site and said it was instituting a policy of banning material more than 10 minutes long. When site visitors clicked on the thumbnail for the video, a message read “This video has been removed due to terms of use violation.”

“The technology basically forbids uploading anything longer than 10 minutes,” Ms. Supan said.

Yet, last Thursday a full 22-minute episode of “Trapped in the Closet” was back up on the site.

Ms. Supan asked a reporter for a link to the video so she could remove it.

Daisy Whitney contributed to this report.