net.wars: Leaks from the top

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 09 July 2004

Yea, verily, I cannot tell a lie: I (and an estimated 8,000 other people) have seen JOEY.

Wendy M Grossman

Therein lies a long and shameful history. Some years back, in a fit of impatience, I joined the newsgroup alt.tv.friends to read the spoilers. I don't know, it was a slow week or something, and there was a cliffhanger I'd just seen on a tape made for me by a friend of stuff in the US, and I wanted to know what happened next without waiting for four months* and then missing the show because either I forgot or didn't know it was on. So. I read the spoilers. And some how I never un-joined the newsgroup. My sorry history there can be read by anyone who does a Google search, and I'm not going to make it even easier for you to do so.

I glanced at it idly last week, and there, in vast excitement, someone had posted a URL to a site where there was supposed to be a copy of the pilot episode of the Friends spin-off, Joey

Well, now, I had to download it, didn't I? It might have been only a rumour. It might have been a fake intended to destabilise the Internet by getting millions of people to download it and thereby infect their computers with viruses. One must Know.

In fact, it was a copy of a "screener" - that is, a pre-release copy intended for critics, audience tests, or advertisers - of the pilot. Not, as it happens, the pilot that will actually be broadcast but the pilot made featuring Ashley Scott as the sexy, blonde, married neighbour that always lives next door to the star in sitcoms. Apparently she wasn't sufficiently blonde, sexy, or next-door, because on June 8 the news went out that she was going to be replaced on the show once the creators had "tweaked" the character.

Joey isn't the only one to have his rough cuts exposed. Proof copies of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the very large novel due for release in October by first-timer Susanna Clarke, are currently for sale on eBay. (Susanna's a friend, so I have legitimately read the manuscript. I can also tell you that, in this case: believe the hype, when it comes; it's a tremendous piece of work.) Last January, several screeners sent to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to allow them to view the movies before voting on the Oscar winners were released onto the Internet. These included Something's Gotta Give and The Last Samurai

The problem in all these cases, of course, is not the Internet. It's insiders. The ship of state isn't, after all, the only ship that leaks from the top. Susanna's proof copies presumably came from press reviewers; the Joey episode probably from someone even closer to the inner circle. The show (with Ashley Scott) was screened for advertisers as long ago as May. In the case of the Oscar screeners, the Academy's encoding eventually enabled the FBI to trace the videocassettes to a Chicago-based friend of an actor who said he'd sent every screener he'd received for three years to his buddy - who promptly copied them, removed the encoding from the copies, and sent them back to the actor. The Academy is reportedly considering a solution that involves specially encrypted DVDs that can only be played on special players that support that particular scheme which will be supplied only to Academy members.

That should work for about a week.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, however, I'd figure the release was sophisticated focus group testing. Who's going to download the pilot of a spin-off show? Right: ardent, technically minded fans of the old show. Who are probably the very people the production company hopes will be "early adopters" of the new show. What do fans do when they download? They talk about the show

So leak your show, wait a week, do a Google groups search, and read the comments. Much cheaper than hiring someone to round up a carefully selected group of people you then have to get to a screening room and ply with drinks and, probably, lunch. And either way, you're covered. If the fans hate it, well, doesn't it say right on the first screen that it's a rough cut, "not of airing quality", meant only for background, not to be reviewed, and will change before final cut? If the fans love it, you can say to the network (while of course complaining about the Evil That Is the Internet), See? I told you we were really onto something.

Oh, and the show? The main character is recognizably the guy we last saw heading down the hallway for coffee. For the rest, well, like it says here, "Not for review purposes", especially given the planned changes. Although I will note that Hollywood's hang-up about pairing 20-year-old women with 60-year-olds has the odd side-effect that women can no longer play their own actual ages or, as was traditional, three to five years younger. In this, Drea de Matteo (Adriana in The Sopranos) is supposed to have a 20-year-old son, played by an actor who's 26 when she herself is really 31

* four months - that's how long it often takes for a show in America to travel to the UK

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).