“Buffy” fans distribute postponed finale online

Network's decision irks the faithful, who take to their Web sites and "tape trees" to get their "Vampire Slayer" fix.

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When executives of the WB network decided to delay airing the season finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — fearing that its depiction of the incineration of a high school wouldn’t go down well in post-Littleton America — they failed to take one thing into account: the Internet. Fans who feared that the network had accomplished what a horde of vampires, demons and other assorted monsters had failed to do — putting a stop to the heroics of vampire slayer Buffy Sommers — are now using the Net to distribute the long-awaited episode.

In the postponed episode, “Graduation Day, Part II,” originally set to air on May 25, Buffy and her entire graduating class of Sunnydale High battle Sunnydale’s evil mayor, who turns into a giant snake-demon while speaking at their commencement. The graduates respond by throwing off their gowns to reveal an arsenal of flamethrowers and bows and arrows. At the end, a large section of the high school building is blown up — and student characters are shown unloading bags of fertilizer to make a big bomb that will kill the mayor-demon.

These elements were apparently too close to the Columbine massacre for the WB executives’ comfort. (Another episode, titled “Earshot,” in which Buffy stops a student from committing an on-campus shooting, was also put on hold when it was originally set to air the week following the Columbine shooting.)

Fans of the cult series have been barraging the network with angry letters, e-mails and faxes and posting protests on the Web. Most seem to feel that while postponing the “Earshot” episode was understandable, the season finale should have been viewed by the WB for what it was — an outrageous fantasy. While WB execs promised that the finale will air “later in the summer,” some among the “Buffy” faithful are doubtful: “My sense of the matter is: There’s a fair chance they may not show the episode at all,” Glen Oliver, editor of Ain’t It Cool News television section, warns his readers.

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The controversial finale did air on the previous Monday in parts of Canada, including Ottawa and Toronto. Because the WB doesn’t air in Canada, the series itself is sent out early via satellite before final broadcast to Canadian viewers. That has allowed hard-core fans of the series to capture the episode on tape and deliver it via “tape trees.” Networks of fans on the Internet are copying the episode and sending it out to fellow fans — on “Buffy” fan Web sites and the alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer newsgroup. Some are gouging fans by offering copies of the finale for as much as $30, but most are selling it for under $10 to recoup postage and the cost of the tape itself.

Furthermore, video files of the Canadian broadcast encoded in RealPlayer format can be found posted on some newsgroups and offered on Web sites that have been set up by fans to distribute it. For many participating in this rash of online bootlegging, it’s not about making a buck or deliberately violating the copyrights of Fox Television (which produces “Buffy”) but rather about defying the WB’s decision to “silence” Buffy.

As a fan posted on alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer: “Now that the files for ‘Graduation Day 2′ are out, we need to keep them available until the WB decides to finally show the episode. I plan to put up a Web site if the [original site distributing the files] goes down, and others need to do the same. Let’s allow people to see the episode!”

Or, as another newsgroup poster put it: “We are the People — We have the Internet — We have the Power — Any questions?”

Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.

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