Skit’s Web Popularity: That’s Rich

Jan 1, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The uncensored “Dick in a Box” video clip that last week generated 7.5 million views for NBC on YouTube did more than give the “Saturday Night Live” skit greater exposure on the Web than it had on television.

It may also illuminate a path for broadcast networks looking for freedom to distribute racier material on the Web than is permitted on public airwaves. “Dick in a Box,” a self-parody of pop singer Justin Timberlake’s soul crooning, ran on the Internet, including the bad word, after airing on the late-night show with the naughty bit censored out.

NBC’s Dec. 16 broadcast, which drew about 7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, bleeped out the offending word 16 times. On NBC.com, the clip was offered in both a censored version and an unexpurgated one that is preceded by a dialog box warning viewers of the adult content.

“Dick in a Box” also marks something of an evolution for NBC and “Saturday Night Live,” who a year ago were sending cease-and-desist letters to Web sites that dared to run copies of the show’s “Lazy Sunday” clip. The ensuing controversy awakened many television executives to the promotional potential of the Internet for the first time.

“The temptation to take advantage of the Web has got to be there,” said Joe Laslo, a senior analyst who covers broadcasting at Jupiter Research. “A year ago when a `Saturday Night Live’ clip was posted on the Web, the reaction was, bring out the lawyers. Now it’s an end run around the censors that creates amazingly good buzz for the show. NBC has come a long way.”

An NBC spokesman declined to comment.

The success of the “Dick in a Box” clip, featuring Mr. Timberlake and “Saturday Night Live” cast member Andy Samberg, doesn’t suggest American broadcasters will necessarily head in the direction of the film industry, which produces tamer U.S. cuts of movies in addition to more explicit European versions, some television executives said.

Still, shows shot with adult content then trimmed provide natural material for adult versions that can be distributed in media outside regulators’ purview.

The threat of networks putting material on the Internet that they can’t get past censors stirred immediate responses from morality groups condemning NBC’s action.

Daniel Weiss, a senior analyst for media and sexuality for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, said NBC’s action had the effect of bleeping the version seen by adults while leaving uncensored the version most likely to be seen by children.

The action “potentially could bring a greater audience for the more offensive version,” he said.

The “Dick in a Box” issue comes as NBC and other networks are currently embroiled in a legal fight with the Federal Communications Commission over sanctions and fines handed out for indecency violations.

“The issue isn’t about what `Saturday Night Live’ did, it’s really about NBC, which was arguing [in an appellate court] that we didn’t need the FCC because they could be trusted to keep inappropriate information from children,” said Melissa Caldwell, director of programs for the Parents Television Council. “It’s an end run around parents and they are putting it in a Web environment occupied and used by children and teens.”

In some ways, linking the “Dick in a Box” skit to FCC indecency issues is odd, since “Saturday Night Live” airs after 10 p.m. and thus isn’t covered by obscenity regulations. NBC said it edited the skit’s on-air version to meet the network’s own standards.

It wasn’t the first time a network has reserved racier content for the Web. In March, The WB Network, concerned about FCC’s indecency rules, put the premiere episode of creator Tom Fontana’s “The Bedford Diaries,” which profiled a college sexuality class, on its Web site a week before the network aired a censored version. CBS aired on the Web a 9/11 documentary that some of its stations declined to run because of concerns about language.

A CBS spokesman said the network thinks about putting different versions of shows on the Web and on TV “all the time,” while an ABC spokeswoman said the strategy is not a part of the company’s digital media strategy right now. Fox has never aired different versions of content for the Web and TV a spokesman said. The CW didn’t return a call seeking comment.

One factor that may limit the networks’ boldness in putting blue content on the Web is their need to protect family-oriented brands that advertisers find attractive. Another is the relatively embryonic state of the market for video ads on the Web.

“Right now, it isn’t a good financial situation,” said Jupiter’s Mr. Laslo. “It’s great for reaping notoriety and publicity but most Internet video is still ad supported and I’d question how many of the typical advertisers for a broadcast would be willing to pay for content with more nudity or other situations.”

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said that could change fast.

“Everything is in play. Things are changing so quickly,” he said. “The only thing clear is that the only one certainly in trouble is anyone who sits back and doesn’t do something to experiment.”