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What You See's Not What You Get

As television fuses with the Internet and some TV shows become as profitable on DVD as they ever were being broadcast, things are getting really weird in the entertainment business.

Consider The Office, NBC's excellent comedy series. This season NBC has broadcast two episodes -- "Branch Closing" and "The Return" -- that were not the definitive versions of the episodes in question, but versions cut down in order to fit in today's standard "half-hour" time slot -- namely, just over 21 minutes.

This is not new, of course. Every TV show in America goes through a process where the have to cut (or even worse, pad) scenes until they can fit exactly in their time slots. And deleted scenes have been turning up on DVD sets for a while now.

What's different here is that the two Office episodes in question were instantly, immediately relegated to truncated status. By the next day, NBC.com was streaming and iTunes was selling a version of "Branch Closing" that ran nine minutes longer than the one shown on NBC, featuring whole other (funny!) subplots that never showed up on the Peacock proper. Likewise, "The Return" popped up online at seven minutes longer than the version shown the night before.

In syndication till the end of time, we'll no doubt see the truncated versions of these episodes, further truncated by the need to cram in even more ads. But on DVD, the extended versions will live forever as the true version of the episodes.

It's a weird situation. Despite having a high-definition version of "Branch Closing" on my TiVo, I chose instead to pay $2 for the full-length version on iTunes and watch that instead. It makes you wonder if this is just an isolated incident, or the beginning of a shearing process that will end up making what's broadcast on television just a teaser for much deeper material that will be offered to harder-core fans on the Internet or on DVD.

(Just a hypothetical here, but if you were a real fan of The Office and you knew that most of a season's episodes were going to be available in expanded form on iTunes, would you avoid the NBC version entirely and just buy a $35 Season Pass to the show? And maybe even watch it on a shiny new Apple TV?)

Here's another, weirder example. This week's Battlestar Galactica episode, "Taking a Break from All Your Worries," concluded (after the credits) with what Sci Fi referred to as a "bonus scene" from the episode. It was a cut-down version of a nearly three-minute long scene that the channel made available on the Web.

The "bonus scene" wasn't integrated into the episode, and doesn't appear in the iTunes download of the show. So it's probably more of a DVD bonus scene than part of an official, expanded episode.

Except for this: Galactica's so-called "bonus scene" is a scene I kept waiting for within the episode, one that I felt was a natural outgrowth of the other events in the episode. More than that, if it had been included it would've been one of the most powerful things in the entire episode -- much better than the lame jealousy/infidelity subplot that gave the episode its Cheers-referencing name.

And yet, it was instead tacked on as a marketing bonus to drive people to the Sci Fi web site. Was it a creative decision? A marketing one? Is that scene integral to the understanding of the series, or a complete apocryphal waste of time? I have no idea.

At least with The Office, I know that the version airing on NBC isn't necessarily the one I want to see. With Battlestar Galactica, I'm a little worried that some of the best stuff is getting shuffled off to the Web for marketing purposes instead of being put in the show where it belongs.

[Hat tips: tvtattle and Alan Sepinwall]


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