Lorne Michaels: SNL Misses Its Dicks in a Box

Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live, is a big fan of YouTube.

“I think that YouTube is great, because if you do something like ‘Dick in a Box,’ someone in Pakistan can see it,” said Mr. Michaels in a phone interview.

He was referring to the now-ubiquitous skit by SNL cast member Andy Samberg and guest host Justin Timberlake in which the duo sang about giving your girlfriend the ultimate gift: namely, your dick in a box.

Recently, Messrs. Timberlake and Samberg sang “Dick in a Box” to hordes of ecstatic fans in a sold-out Madison Square Garden. But it’s not hard to imagine a teenager in Islamabad cracking up his friends with those same irresistible lyrics: “One, cut a hole in the box …. ”

“YouTube has been great for us,” Mr. Michaels reiterated.

Perhaps no other network show has gotten more out of the free video-sharing Web site than Saturday Night Live. Indeed, at the very moment the long-running program seems to be emerging from a years-long slump, producing sketches—not just lip-synch bloopers—that people actually want to share, discuss, and watch again and again, YouTube has been there, doing more to re-establish the show’s cultural relevance than any honcho at NBC.

So why, one might ask, would NBC pull the plug?

Just as Saturday Night Live is earning back its credibility and fans, NBC has taken the videos down. NBC’s legal department, under the helm of Rick Cotton, patrols YouTube for unauthorized NBC content. Once found, the material is promptly removed. Consequently, the network is discouraging the very buzz that was firming up the show’s grip on the American zeitgeist.

The action has left Saturday Night Live with a diminished online presence. NBC has a sanctioned YouTube page to promote clips of their choosing from SNL, but it is far from exhaustive. Toward the end of March, executives at NBC Universal announced that they were teaming up with the News Corporation to create a new Web venture that would allow executives at the two media behemoths to distribute their own copyrighted shows across some of the Web’s most heavily trafficked sites, including AOL, Yahoo, MSN and MySpace—that is, more or less everywhere except on the Google-owned YouTube. The venture is expected to launch later this summer.

Media watchers dubbed the new unnamed Web venture the “YouTube killer.”

So what does that bode for the future relevance of Saturday Night Live?

“I think it should be clear, I don’t quite understand what NBC is doing with Fox,” said Mr. Michaels. “It sounds—” Mr. Michaels paused. “Cool. But it all seems like it’s still shaking out.”

A NBC spokesperson said that the new venture should benefit Saturday Night Live by making more of the show’s content more readily available on a wider variety of sites—all under the legal imprimatur of the show’s parent company.

Mr. Michaels went on to explain that although he is concerned about the future relationship between his show and YouTube, he has faith that NBC’s evolving digital strategy will ultimately protect Saturday Night Live. He said he hopes that viewers will continue to see SNL’s best content on a variety of media platforms, including the Internet, iTunes and cell phones.

“I think it’s simple for me,” said Mr. Michaels. “If the work is good, I want the most number of people to see it—period. Anything that leads to that would be my objective.”

“The creators obviously want the biggest possible audience,” added Mr. Michaels. “And lawyers have another agenda.”

FORGET "DICK IN A BOX" FOR A MOMENT. What about that hallmark of Saturday Night Live’s influence—the political sketch? As the country enters another frenzied Presidential race, it seems that NBC might be hindering SNL’s momentum on the Internet at the exact moment when the country is primed for a classic bit of SNL satire.

This past October, Alex Pareene, the editor of the heavily trafficked political blog Wonkette, embedded a short SNL clip featuring Darrell Hammond as Brit Hume interviewing Will Forte as President Bush. A few hours later, Mr. Pareene received an e-mail from YouTube.

“This is to notify you that we have removed or disabled access to the following material as a result of a third-party notification by NBC Universal claiming that this material is infringing,” read the e-mail. “In order to avoid future strikes against your account, please delete any videos to which you do not own the rights.”

Likewise, in January, the Raw Story, an on-line news site, embedded a video from YouTube of an SNL skit featuring Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton. Shortly thereafter, NBC lawyers asked YouTube to take down the clip.

In January, Rachel Sklar, the editor of the Huffington Post’s “Eat the Press” media section, linked to an unauthorized YouTube clip of Saturday Night Live host Jake Gyllenhaal, in drag, belting out a song from Dreamgirls. By the next day, NBC had prodded YouTube into yanking the clip. Henceforth, instead of seeing what Ms. Sklar described as a “tour-de-force” performance, visitors to “Eat the Press” were redirected to a terse warning: “This video is no longer available.”

Theoretically, any Internet user on the prowl for SNL content should be able to turn to the NBC-sanctioned YouTube channel. After each new episode, NBC uploads several authorized SNL clips onto the channel, alongside promotions for other programming such as The Office and Heroes. At the same time, NBC also posts SNL content on the show’s official NBC Web site, complete with a video-sharing device called the “Control Booth” and a library of digital clips from current and past seasons.

So what’s the problem?

To watch SNL content on the NBC Web site, you first have to sit through (admittedly brief) commercials. More frustrating is the lack of an adequate search function on the “Control Booth,” which makes finding a specific skit a labor-intensive process. The NBC YouTube channel, on the other hand, works perfectly—except that NBC often makes inexplicable decisions about what gets uploaded. Some of the best skits never make it onto the site.

The situation is even grimmer for music bloggers hoping to spread around clips of bands performing on SNL. In February, band-of-the-moment Arcade Fire churned out a gripping set on the SNL stage. The next day, the music blog Stereogum reported that front man Win Butler had performed with a Haitian proverb taped to his guitar, which translated to “An empty sack doesn’t stand up.” Existential metaphors aside, it seemed like a perfect summation of NBC’s evolving policy towards YouTube. Further down in the post, Stereogum linked to a couple of YouTube clips of the performance, in which Mr. Butler smashed said guitar. Days later, both clips had been rendered useless.

How do Saturday Night Live and NBC decide which skits get officially posted, and where?

Mr. Michaels says that he has a hand in the process, which typically takes place at the end of each show. Some of those decisions, according to Mr. Michaels, are dictated by logistics (short clips for cell phones), others by the complicated thicket of guilds, and unions, and copyright issues.

“Very often, music in a sketch is not clearable,” said Mr. Michaels. “Very often, a sketch that I would love to put up there I can’t, because you’d have to clear it with the publisher.”

Music aside, what about SNL’s political satire?

Eric Schmeltzer, a New York–based independent political correspondent who formerly served as the press secretary for Howard Dean, suggests that NBC executives might have been wearing their bad-idea jeans when they decided to sic their legal department on YouTube.

“Political clips are some of the most-watched on YouTube—besides some of the nonsense that teenagers will put up of them dancing on their beds and stuff like that,” said Mr. Schmeltzer. “If they have a good political skit that skewers George W. Bush, if you put that on YouTube and allow people to grab it and post it, you could potentially be seen the next day by two or three million people. I just can’t understand why they wouldn’t want that to happen.”

Mattis Goldman, a Democratic political consultant, points out that SNL’s political satire had a huge impact on the 2000 Presidential elections, long before the advent of YouTube. (Remember the lockbox?) The question for Mr. Goldman is whether, in the intervening years, NBC has sufficiently kept up with the changing media landscape.

“In 2000, Saturday Night Live’s satire of what happened in the campaign became the conventional wisdom for what was going on in the campaign,” said Mr. Goldman. “But the creative idea alone is not enough these days: You have to have a Web-based outlet where people are going to be able to view it.”

Is it a smart strategy for NBC to crack down on unauthorized SNL clips on YouTube?

“That’s a decision they have to make,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “If pieces cannot be used, they’ll have less political impact. But that’s not what NBC is interested in. They’re interested in money. The political discourse may be poorer for their decision, but their decision makes perfect sense for them, because they’re a profit-making organization.”

Mr. Michaels says that this fall, as always, Saturday Night Live will spoof the upcoming Presidential debates. But whether those skits will end up on YouTube, Mr. Michaels can’t say at this point.

“With the new Fox thing,” said Mr. Michaels, “I think we’re all just waiting, you know?” Lorne Michaels: SNL Misses Its Dicks in a Box