Spoiler Alert Overload: When Can We Talk Freely About Shocking TV Moments?

TV Spoliers on the internet

The two most dreaded words in TV coverage may well be “spoiler alert.”

In this age of too much TV, it’s virtually impossible to watch everything live. And in high season, Sunday nights are a DVR-busting traffic jam. So nearly every TV story we publish now begins with those words of caution.

But when does the statute of limitations expire: The next morning? The next week?

I’m all for respecting the East Coast/West Coast time difference — of course, that’s only fair. And certainly, any stories the day after deserve a fair warning. But I’ve gotten yelled at for mentioning — spoiler alert — the death of a certain marine-turned-terrorist six months after it aired.

Netflix’s all-at-once programming strategy has rendered it all-but-impossible to even begin to cover their shows. Yes, greedy people like me binge-watched the entire second season of “House of Cards” that first February weekend, so how are we supposed to handle big plot twists like — spoiler alert — you-know-who’s murder in the premiere? Am I allowed to mention it here? And when will we be permitted to discuss the just-released second season of “Orange Is the New Black”?

“Community” star Yvette Nicole Brown binged it all — and tweeted: “That last minute was satisfying in a way I can’t even quantify. No spoilers in the replies, please.” Needless to say, it didn’t help.

I was once talking to a showrunner whose drama is based on a series of books published years ago, and I referenced something that happened in the novel. “That’s a spoiler!” he cautioned me.

It’s not that I’m advocating spoilers: I’ve been burned badly, too. I learned of — spoiler alert — Matthew Crawley’s death on “Downton Abbey” not from social media, but from simply launching Google the morning after the U.K. airing. Yes, it made headlines internationally. (Memo to PBS: It’s time to abandon the transcontinental time lag.)

The problem with rampant spoilers is that there’s simply no way to police them, yet everyone feels they’ve got the moral authority to lecture you if you dare breathe a plot point.

Twitter is ground zero for spoilers, with fans feverishly posting plot twists as they happen — and just as furiously flaming those that do. The night that — spoiler alert — Dan Bucatinsky’s character died on “Scandal,” he tweeted the news. And I got singed by simply retweeting his post.

Even just a peek at what’s trending is itself a spoiler. Is it that much of a leap to figure out that if #Joffrey is trending that — spoiler alert — something crucial has happened to everyone’s least favorite boy king?

Throughout this Emmy season, I’ve asked actors, producers and other key Hollywood players what they think of Twitter, and how they use it.

Some see it as a way to get their message out to fans without “having to go through the press” (gee, thanks). Some value it as a social marketing tool: @bellamyyoung credits it with getting “Scandal” picked up for a second season. Others approach it antagonistically: @nigellythgoe calls his followers “morons.”

What sticks in my mind is what “Glee” exec producer @bradfalchuk said. He told me he’s still struggling with Twitter. He referenced Louis C.K., who says that kids learn empathy from watching someone’s reaction to what they say. But on Twitter, there’s a disconnect — people write things they would never say in person.

“The other day, people were very angry about us giving a love interest to the lead character whose boyfriend had died — who really died,” said Falchuk. “He was a friend of ours. And this friend died. Finally I had to tweet, you know, you’re talking about a real person. And you’re talking to a real person whose friend died. So stop. You’re embarrassing yourself. And it stopped.”

Spoiler alert: I don’t think it will — for long.

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  1. I think peoples’ fear of spoilers is about the stupidest thing. I don’t spoil things because it upsets people, and I don’t like upsetting my friends about things they’re sensitive about even if they’re hopelessly wrong. But knowing how something turns out does not ruin the experience of watching it. The word “spoiler” itself is a misnomer. In fact, if something actually can be *ruined* by the viewer knowing what happens before it happens, the piece itself is probably terrible.

    It’s not about not caring about people. It’s not about expecting everyone to have seen everything. (I don’t expect the average high schooler to have seen/read every classic book/show/what have you.) It’s that knowing what happens simply does not actually alter one’s enjoyment of a thing. That’s why spoiler-fear is stupid.

    Fear of spoilers is a relatively new phenomenon in terms of storytelling (compared to, say, the chorus in a play outlining the plot before the story begins). The obsession with avoiding spoilers is co-morbid with this recent emergence of prestige TV. In the past people shouted and fought and drank in the theater. Now a vibrating phone is viewed as the deepest violation our most sacred right to a pristine movie viewing experience in a dirty theater in the company of dozens of people. Spoiler-fear is much the same in that I think it’s here to stay, because it’s associated with purity.

  2. HL says:

    What’s with traditional media treating the distance and disconnect that social media provides as being any different from what they do themselves? Do journalists, showrunners, directors, and entertainment reporters see the people they’re communicating to and about while they’re doing it? Of course not. Yes, social media is far more immediate, but it’s still broadcast media and it doesn’t have any more disconnect from the reader that that which broadcast media has always had. Including this article, and many of the shows discussed in it. If anything, the immediacy of social media enables feedback that traditional media isn’t used to getting (though it can be extraordinarily biased), how about you use that to try to understand people instead of treating them as simple consumers of whatever you do.

    Have awareness of what you look at in social media, and awareness of both who you follow and who your followers are (and what information they’re likely to want to see). It’s not really different than other communication: to do it well you need to know who it is that you’re listening to, and know who it is that you’re talking to. Even for something as simple as retweeting, because your followers may have chosen not to follow that other person for a reason. Or considering feedback, because you need to know how it’s being biased and shaped by who’s involved and the rest of the online environment.

  3. Anita says:

    I have little sympathy for people who complain about spoilers after logging onto social media sites where everyone knows TV is discussed. No doubt these are people with impulse-control issues who’ve succumbed to their own curiosity — not unlike curious children who snoop in their parents’ closet, learn what they’re getting for Christmas, and then blame their parents for ruining the surprise by not hiding the gifts better.

  4. Jacques Strappe says:

    Social media is a pox on society. It feeds no need other than ones ego. It’s not even social. I really feel sorry for anyone living in the Pacific Time Zone who watches television; you’re especially doomed if you follow any social media.

  5. Jeremy says:

    Doesn’t (shouldn’t) some of the responsibility lie with the media? Viewers want to read recaps as quickly as they can, and more power to the websites that give their readers what they want. Moderate those headlines, though. Those of us who DVR a late night show don’t want to see “RECAP: _______ LOST HIS HEAD” at 6AM while surfing facebook before work.

  6. It’s the responsibility of the viewer to avoid them when they haven’t seen a show. If you venture onto EW.com before you’ve seen last night’s season finale of Game of Thrones, you’re asking for plot points to be revealed.

    Is it so difficult to impossible to NOT go there before you’ve seen the episode? I watched the Spurs/Heat game before I watched GoT last night and avoided EW.com until AFTER I saw the finale later in the evening last night.

  7. Ann W. says:

    It seems to me that part of the responsibility lies with the people who are waiting to watch. Would Sharknado have been as much of an event of people watching had chosen to be cautious or silent about what was happening? Part of the freedom of speech in social media is the instant reaction to what is happening now. If you are on the west coast and don’t want spoilers, stay off Twitter until you watch, or use the mute function to not see tweets regarding the show. Although TV shows almost exclusively pre-recorded/filmed, they are shown at a certain time, and we have a reasonable expectation of watching at the time or within 24 hours. I am part of a Downton Abbey discussion group with the rule to mark any email a spoiler, when discussing all seasons, because there are people who still haven’t had the time to finish season 1. If it is important, you will watch it soon. If not, expect that even if you learn of an event, it will not be the same as watching it unfold. I say a month for a film, but a week or two at the most for episodic television.

  8. The weight of responsibility in not divulging spoilers is directly proportionate to the impact and satisfaction you received from that part of the story. If you know it was good or juicy, you KNOW you’re taking something away from someone by blurting it. On the other hand, if it had no greatness to begin with or was disappointing, then it’s a free-for-all. With shows as intense and prolific as they are, I’d say spoiler alert time frame is 1 MONTH FOR FILMS, 3 MONTHS FOR TELEVISION.

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