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Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Constitutes a Spoiler?

Exhibit A, the Internet Troll - someone who spoils just for the nastiness of it
  • Exhibit A, the Internet Troll - someone who spoils just for the nastiness of it

There has been a lot of debate recently on Twitter and Facebook about spoilers. Let's strip this down to the basics, and then I'd like to hear what your thoughts are about it, dear readers. There seem to be as many opinions as TV shows.

Traditionally, a spoiler is something that has not aired yet. For instance, many of the shows I review are sent to me on discs from the networks that contain several episodes. So while the viewing public may have just watched Episode 1 of "Sons of Anarchy," I have access to the first three full episodes, and so forth. For me to mention something pivotal, shocking, or any kind of plot twist that is happening down the road that would ruin it for other viewers would be lame, unprofessional and a bit unethical. In fact, it's something studios and networks try very hard to avoid.

A few years ago this wasn't quite the same issue as today. Some entertainment journalists might tease spoilers for fans who didn't care if they were telegraphed certain upcoming plot devices, but the goods were always clearly marked with a SPOILER! tag, or put behind a cut, or had to be highlighted to read. These kinds spoilers were (and are) typically so benign though that even someone who wanted to know if She hooks up with Him, or if He is trying to leave the show is still left without much gratification. But then something changed. The DV-R. Online streaming. And a general delay in watching that completely fractured our understanding of spoilers.

It's easy enough at the literal watercooler, when someone starts to say, "Oh my gosh did you see last night on 'Lost' …" to stop them, cover your ears and "LA LA LA LA LA" until they get the hint that you haven't seen the episode yet. But it's much harder to avoid a Tweet or a Facebook status that casually says "I can't believe John died." And yet look at it from the perspective of the person posting that. Twitter and Facebook are virtual watercoolers. After (or during) a particularly intense episode, there's a natural reaction to want to discuss it. How do most plugged-in people discuss most things and get crowd-sourced opinions? Twitter and Facebook.

It's a tough thing, too, especially when many a network has used, as a marketing tool, the "live tweet" experience with a cast member or just among fans. And while there are plenty of complaints over television shows, most everyone live tweets and posts Facebook updates about sporting events. Is that a spoiler? And how long should the spoiler window stay closed? A day? A week? A year? Are we not allowed to discuss something until everyone we know either watches it or waives their right to care?

Sure, I've been spoiled. Most of it is from not seeing things within a decade of anyone else. The ending of The Sixth Sense, the fact that "Soylent Green is people!" Darth Vadar is Luke's father … I could argue these are spoilers since I hadn't read or seen the material at the time I learned the fact. But then who would ever be allowed to say anything? Quite a few of us saw Titanic, quite a few times, even though we knew - as people were so fond of joking - "SPOILER: the boat sinks!"

So who's allowed to discuss something? Professionals only? Movie reviews come out before the films do, TV recaps come out the night they air, and sport scores roll out on live tickers at the bottom of your screen, but it's very rare to hear about spoiler complaints lobbied at critics and professional media outlets. So it is just the layman who must keep mum? And again, for how long? And across which mediums?

I personally come down on the side of "if it aired, it's not a spoiler." But I also acknowledge it's not as easy as that. I hate accidentally spoiling friends on plot points of a show I know they're catching up on, because I want them to have the same shocking experience with it I did. We don't have rules for this shifting paradigm, just like TV ratings don't usually take into account DV-Rs and online streams. It's a moving target, but I'd like to hear your thoughts: What would be a sensible set of rules for spoilers? Or is it foolish to think we can even make them at all?

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