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Spoil-Sport: Why Talking About an Episode That's Already Aired Isn't a "Spoiler"

I'm personally against spoilers.

I can't stand them and I think they detract from the audience's appreciation of the care and effort that series' writers take to deploy the plots that they have carefully developed. I don't read the end of mystery novels for the same reason. I don't want to know whodunit before the killer has even struck. The journey is what interests me most more than the ultimate destination. I want to see how characters develop, how they change and grow, how the plot twists and turns.

In other words: I want to be surprised.

That said, a comment I received on a story (elsewhere, not on Televisionary) rankled me this morning. The reader took umbrage at the fact that I didn't include a "spoiler warning" at the start of an interview for an episode that had already aired.

Here's where my views depart from the devout spoiler-phobe. I firmly believe that, once an episode has aired across the country, all bets are off. It's a free-for-all, as far as I am concerned. Writers, critics, bloggers, whoever, should be free to discuss the episode's intricacies and plot developments with abandon. There's no need to label a post, an interview, or anything as a "spoiler" because it's not spoiling anything.

The details about the latest episode's plots, reality series eliminations, character deaths, etc. are out there in the public consciousness. Consider them public domain, if you will. And the onus to avoid them isn't on the part of the writer but on the reader.

If by some bizarre occurrence (say, I was trapped on a Martian base being chased by a water-based homicidal creature), I was to miss an episode of Doctor Who or Lost, I would firmly expect to have plot points revealed in every single piece written about Doctor Who or Lost the following day.

The burden, therefore, is on me to avoid all sites, forums, blogs, and print publications that might make mention of plot developments of which I am unaware. Likewise, BBC One will air Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars a month before BBC America does here in the States. If I want to avoid knowing just what happens, I'm going to avoid visiting any British publications and websites for several days after the special airs. I wouldn't expect those journalists to label their stories with a "spoiler" warning and I don't believe that they should.

The person in question who said that I should have labeled my story with a spoiler warning was seven episodes behind on the series in question. Now, that's not my fault. That's a choice that the reader in question made on their own. Perhaps they're catching up, perhaps they fell behind. But the day after a season finale airs, you can bet that the elements of that episode that are going to get discussed will be placed prominently and in full view of everyone.

I'd hate to think that I'd derailed anyone's enjoyment of a television series but I also think we need to revisit our definition of "spoilers" and understand that in an age of DVRs and internet viewing, it's up to the viewers and readers to be canny and aware and not reporters or critics to police themselves from inadvertently upsetting the few who might not be up to date.

What do you think? What's your take on spoilers and episode-specific reporting/criticism/interviews? Do you think journalists need to tread more lightly? Or it is up to viewers to choose their steps more carefully? Discuss.


Myles said…
Hear, hear.

My one personal issue is when a headline, which can be unavoidable in an RSS reader, includes a direct spoiler: there are ways, without having to label everything a spoiler, to keep the content of a post spoiler-filled while keeping the internet footprint of those spoilers limited (although, obviously, not invisible).

But rather than a requirement, that's a courtesy (although one that would make me more likely to visit such a site).
Rick said…
Right there with you. I was recently criticized for "spoiling" that the aliens in "V" have lizard skin -- by someone who hadn't seen the *26-year-old* miniseries.

The simple rule should be: Before the fact, spoiler. After the fact, public. Those of us who write/blog/talk about TV on a regular basis can't be expected to know the viewing habits of all our readers.
ruraljuror said…
Indeed. Always been a pet peeve of mine as well.
Unknown said…
That's nothing. People are complaining on the Washington Post site for "spoiling" the results of a poker tournament. Which is a real life thing. That happened in real time.

They really think you should spoiler news?
miket said…
It's one thing if someone is 7 episodes behind, it's quite another if it's the morning after an episode airs.

I try to be careful if I haven't seen something, but if I see a post about a show I like, I'll start reading it, whether I'm caught up or not. Not all such articles are about plot points. Just give us a little warning

Is it really that much of an inconvenience to type 7 letters at the top of your story? A little good will goes a long way.
Tiddles said…
No you shouldn't censor what you say, but adding the word 'contains spoilers' at the top of a post isn't a great burden is it?

The viewers have to be careful of course, but they also need information to know what to avoid. Needing to avoid most TV related sites in case there's a headline that gives away a major plot point of one show is too much. It means you're unable to get information on other shows as well.

Then there's the added danger of social networking!

Not everyone will be able to see shows live so the problem is going to be there, but at the same time there has to be a point where the spoiler tags should stop-I'd suggest that should be perhaps a few days later rather than immediately after broadcast.
Jace Lacob said…

That's an editorial issue that has little or nothing to do with the writer of a piece. I didn't reveal anything in the headline. But it was clear that it was a post-finale interview with the creator of said series. I think there has to be some common sense involved with viewers who are behind or who are watching at their own pace.
ted23 said…
THANK YOU! I am so tired of people whining about being spoiled after the fact. Like you say don't go someplace where there might be spoilers! Don't read an article about a show if you are behind!
Mike said…
It is the readers responsibility to avoid spoilers.

Plain and simple.

Last I checked, it was your job to talk about what has transpired on TV shows and your opinions regarding that content. You post your Top Chef review up every Thursday and sometimes on Wednesday evening. It is my choice to read it or not and you shouldn't be criticized for doing your job.

There is an old phrase I think applies to this situation and the idiotic commenter.....

"Stupid is as stupid does."

Have some common sense people! If the headline is talking about a "post-finale" interview, then wouldn't you imagine it would include information regarding the finale?
Ryan T. said…
Hey Jace. I'm sortathatboy on twitter and you already replied to me this morning about this issue. I wasn't aware of the details, but now that I've read this, I completely agree with you.

As someone who watches way more TV than I should, there are plenty of times when I just don't have the time to watch the episode live and I knnow that it is my burden to stay away from articles or blogs that talk about said episode, which is why I agree with you about your reaction to that person who left you the comment.

But just to refresh your memory, I told you that "in the age of DVR and Hulu, there should maybe be at least 1-3 days leeway." What I meant by this is that while journalists, critics, bloggers can and SHOULD write all they want about a new episode that has aired, I still think 1-3 days is a good buffer before people can start putting "LOCKE IS DEAD!" on the title of the post. That's my issue.

And again note my timeline, 1-3 days. I'd be a fool to think this "leeway" should go on much longer. Which is why again, you were completely in the right with that commenter who is seven episodes behind.
Eric said…
Those who complain about after the fact spoilers are doing so out of a combination of selfishness and what I'll generously call naiveté (though I'm more inclined to call it ignorance). The fact is, those who saw a significant episode of a series are going to go to their choice blogs ad entertainment news sites for recaps, analysis and insight after it airs. Sites would be remiss in not covering it immediately after it airs.

Asking that writers, editors and sites label something that's already aired as a "spoiler" is essentially asking them to tailor their coverage to the individual reader who has not seen it. I know people time delay their viewing. The simple solution, as stated above, avoid the sites.

The alternate solution: Get some perspective. You're now aware of plot points you weren't before. Big deal. That's what you get for reading a story after the show has aired. It's a TV show. Get over it.

I managed to stay off Twitter for over a day until I had a chance to view the Mad Men finale. I can imagine that any fan of a show can avoid news of it or learn to accept the consequences of delayed viewing.
Amy Vernon said…
Totally agree. Astounding that people will read a post about a show AFTER it's aired and then get upset there are plot points given away.

I try to make post titles plot-point-free, but beyond that, we shouldn't have to say, "Don't read if you didn't watch." If you haven't watched, you shouldn't be reading anything about the show the next day (or thereafter) if you don't want to know.

And that is coming from someone who watches EVERYthing on DVR and has watched entire seasons of shows (Damages, for example) after the season's already ended.
Unknown said…
Jace - totally agree with you. If a show has aired, it's fodder for discussion. However, I also agree with Memles that sites should not post headlines that reveal major plot turns because it's a fact that many viewers do not watch shows when they first air. Surely there's a happy medium.
Tempest said…
One, let me just say that as a devoted reader, I appreciate your stance on spoilers. I know I can come and read beforehand without something being spoiled. I also believe that after a show has aired, the responsibility is on the reader to avoid spoilers. I avoided all "Ashes to Ashes" articles here until I had seen season one.

However, I have to agree with the 1-3 days in terms of titles. Because we live in an age of DVR's (or for some of us, we catch it on hulu) and delayed viewing, I think it's mark of courtesy if writers avoid spoilers in the titles. I've been in the situation of avoiding reading about a certain show only to have major plot points revealed in a headline on a site. (And I'm not talking sites like this -- devoted to television. I'm referring to a major news organization.) I understand that might not be possible -- I just think it would be nice.
Jace Lacob said…
Tempest and DiFi,

Totally agree re: headlines, both before and immediately after broadcast. I try my best not to give away key plot twists in the headlines (or will try to be as vague as possible). There are sites that thrive because they do include twists in headlines, sometimes before episodes even air. That I'm opposed to.
susie que said…
RE: Miket's comment "I try to be careful if I haven't seen something, but if I see a post about a show I like, I'll start reading it, whether I'm caught up or not. Not all such articles are about plot points. Just give us a little warning."

I don't really understand why you would read news/reviews about a show that you're behind on as I'm sure most articles, even if they aren't "about plot points" would still have references about what is currently going on in the show. If you want to take that risk, it's your call. You shouldn't expect the journalist to cater you.

Sure, adding a spoiler warning just means adding a sentence to the top of a post but it's also the principle of the thing.

It's kind of like how every product we buy now comes with a warning. You buy mouthwash and it says "not for use in eyes" or something ridiculous like that because you know there was some idiot who used it incorrectly. Don't be that idiot.
Anonymous said…
In this age of DVR time shifting, I do think we need to have some additional sensitivity around this issue. Yes, if an episode has aired, you should feel free to discuss it. To the world at large, it's not a spoiler. But for individuals who couldn't watch the episode when it was aired, it can still be "spoiled."

The problem here isn't just about "netiquette," it's just as much a technological one. Twitter, which spits out a steady stream of random stuff, can be really hard to "safely" use if you are trying to avoid having something spoiled. Easy solution: just don't open twitter until you've seen it. But that's not always practical. Ideally, twitter clients will eventually have a feature for filtering out spoileriffic content, and everybody will be happy. Perhaps it's just something driven by keywords ("hide all tweets with the words 'madmen,' 'mad men,'" etc."). That wouldn't be foolproof, no, but it would at least catch tweets that are properly hashtagged.
Unknown said…
I will freely admit I'm a (mostly) spoiler-phobe who due to RL cannot always watch an episode when it airs. This, obviously, colors my opinion on the subject.

I'm glad that you keep it out of headlines, as I use headlines to try to determine if something is "safe" for me to read. Back a couple of years ago there was an article about BSG that had a headline giving away someone's death. Yes, my fault for not being fully caught up, but I was on a generic news site, not a show-specific site, and it is pretty hard to avoid seeing the big, bold text. (Plus I get a lot of headlines through RSS readers/Twitter.)

In addition to the courtesy of keeping headlines spoiler-free, I wish that people would also indicate what the article/blog post is about in a non-spoilery way. In my opinion you did that by saying it was a post-finale wrap up (or something along those lines). Others do it by mentioning that the article/entry discusses a particular episode before actually discusses the entry.

I know that I'm risking being spoiled by going online. I love television, though, and while I may be an episode behind on a show or two, I'm caught up on others and would like to discuss them. I don't understand what it hurts to make a headline non-spoilery and to mention that an article deals with a recent episode so that I can avoid it until I'm caught up. (Both of which you did, so I have no problems with your article.) Others, including a couple who posted here, think that it should be entirely the reader's responsibility, which I disagree with; it is easier for someone to be courteous in posting things for a day or two after they air than for me to unsee something I've seen inadvertently.
miket said…

Wait, what's the editorial issue? I know writers don't usually write headlines (I don't even know what this specific one said). But if you put SPOILER at the top of your story, I doubt an editor would remove it.

If yours said "post-finale interview" why can't others just say "spoiler"?

It's not stupidity, it's not laziness, it's not selfishness. It's the age of Tivo, people.

I'm not saying a week. As Ryan T said, 1-3 days is fine. Guess I was just hoping for a little consideration.

P.S. And why is it that the people who say "Get over it." usually have the most vitriolic posts?
Sam said…
I totally agree with you, Jace. I've dodged many a spoiler when I'm behind and rarely seem to have too much trouble if I'm committed to it.

However, I think Ryan T. is on to something. If I see "Matthew Wiener on the Mad Men season finale" I can scroll past that in my RSS reader, but if the title is "Don Draper is the Roswell alien!!" it's a bit harder to avoid.

I'm curious about how this applies to features, though. In that world reviews serve a strange double purpose: helping you decide whether to see a movie and simultaneously analyzing the movie. Lately it feels like reviewers have become more interested in commentary and less concerned about keeping important plot elements secret. And then there's the, in my opinion, inexcusable stuff. I remember being furious when a review of the Dark Knight casually ruined the big twist of Hancock for me. I was clearly a little behind the curve on Hancock, but I don't think anyone should be expected to stay THAT vigilant.
Remy said…
Agree completely. I don't think I have much else to add - if you don't want to be spoiled, don't go looking for articles discussing what happened. Especially if the article is clearly labeled as a recap! I think it's more than fair to leave spoilers out of article titles, but beyond that I think it's fair game.

Like Amy Vernon said, it's possible to avoid spoilers quite easily. I have a friend who has yet to finish the Harry Potter series, and has managed to avoid any articles that describe what happened.

Even as a person who looks for spoilers (forgive me, I'm weak), I know how to avoid them when I want to - for example, over the summer I finally watched Chuck. Normally I like to read along with recaps, so that I notice details that I might overlook otherwise, but I did not watch anything to ruin that show for me. Don't go looking for trouble if you don't want to find it kind of deal.
George said…
Yes, it's okay to post information after the episode has aired, but for blog entries, the details should be left out of the headline and main picture of the posting. I DVR many shows and watch them the next night. I want to read my blogs the day after the show airs and would hope that the "spoilery" details would be below the fold in the blog postings so that I can easily skip the ones that would spoil my day-late viewing. I had to unsubscribe to one such blog because they constantly put information about eliminated reality show contestants in the headline AND the main picture, making it impossible to skim over without spoiling.
evie said…
There is no reason to include information about an episode that recently (i.e., in the last few days) aired in a headline, especially in a headline that will feed into RSS readers. In fact, I find it incredibly disrespectful to the blogger's/columnist's readers and the antithesis of our DVR culture. The suicide in "House" last season is a perfect example -- columnists actually put that reveal in their headlines. I unsubscribed to anyone who did.

However, if a blog/column is described as an interview with the writer after airing an episode, it's pretty clear to me that if I read that post, I'm likely to learn information about the episode.

Just give the reader a chance to opt-out of learning the information. That's all I ask.
rockauteur said…

Noticed you called attention to being "criticized for "spoiling" that the aliens in "V" have lizard skin -- by someone who hadn't seen the *26-year-old* miniseries."

Now, did you follow your own rules? Meaning, did you post something after the pilot aired or before? While I agree with Jace and his stance on spoilers, a 26 year old miniseries that a new audience HASN'T SEEN shouldn't justify revealing that tidbit of information BEFORE the new pilot came out since the majority of the audience hadn't seen it. But if it was revealed by your post AFTER the pilot aired, then all bets are off, of course.

Spoilers for me are only information revealed before a show airs about the plot. If I miss a show, I avoid the tv sites for a day. The readers out there should be able to do the same.
Stellar Drift said…
Yeah spoiler boy, except you are citizen of planet earth - just because it has aired in your country doesn't mean it has for the rest of your readers.

Now of course it would not be realistic to keep labeling something spoiler forever, but the following rules are good to follow - forever:

* Don't reveal major plot twists in the header.

* Don't reveal spoilerish things in the first paragraph

* Don't have big pictures at the top of the page revealing spoilery stuff
Wes said…
@Stellar Drift: That is the most moronic rubric ever. As Jace said, he wouldn't expect UK writers to do that for Doctor Who so why would US writers do that for US shows? Unless it's an international TV site, that doesn't make ANY sense and just confuses the issue further as shows can air MONTHS after they do in the US.
Sharon said…
I think the first commenter here said it best. Spoilers are perfectly fine as long as they are not in your face in the headline or the very beginning of an article.

I don't buy the idea that it's "public domain" so therefore it's not spoiler. Maybe if you were discussing who is Luke Skywalker's father or what's the twist ending of The Sixth Sense, then I would agree since those spoilers have been around for years and are common knowledge by now. A show that just aired a day ago is not the same thing.

In the real world, DVRs exist and TV lovers of all kinds use them. It's only polite to give your readers a chance to skip over articles for shows they haven't gotten a chance to watch yet.

For instance, I've been so obsessed with Mad Men that I haven't had the chance to watch the most recent Dexter yet. You can't tell people to just stay off the TV sites until they've watched every single thing on their DVRs. If you keep spoilers out of the headlines, then I can enjoy the Mad Men commentary now and still come back later after I've watched Dexter and enjoy those articles too.

By the way, I'm not defending that original reader who obviously spoiled him/herself. I think it's ridiculous for someone seven episodes behind to complain about spoilers, but to say that "all bets are off" after an episode has aired is very extreme. A little spoiler consideration is always appreciated.
Kelly said…
Jace, I'm 100% with you here. Once it's aired, it's no longer a *spoiler* it's news. I was lambasted by a Facebook friend (in my own time zone) for posting "Sterling Cooper Draper Price" after the show ended. Even though I gave no other information as to what happened. My response "If you don't watch the Super Bowl when it airs, do you expect the newspapers to write *Spoiler alert* before the results?" I didn't think so.
Sharon said…
One more comment... I just went and read your Daily Beast interview. The first sentence/headline was "Dead presidents, divorce, and new digs". That is kind of spoilery. It reveals three big developments of the season and it's not the kind of thing you can avoid reading very easily. I think the complaint about spoilers has some merit.

However, the interview was so well done and you didn't spoil me personally, so I forgive you. ;)
Jace Lacob said…

Actually, that's the dek. The hed was "Mad Men, Laid Bare," which didn't give anything away whatsoever...
Anonymous said…
Can I just add that a little more caution should be taken with shows on premium networks (such as Friday Night Lights, Dexter, etc.)? Some of us can't afford the hefty price tag of these channels, and we depend on Netflix once the DVDs are out (those of us who try to resist the less-than-legal ways of watching those shows). So that means we avoid coverage until that time...but certainly we want to enjoy shows we are able to watch as they air. I don't mean that you shouldn't cover those shows, but a little caution in the headline and first line so that those of us reading in an RSS feeder can police ourselves. For instance, I stopped following a blog when they revealed in the headline that ***SPOILER FOR A YEAR AGO*** Rita was pregnant on "Dexter". However, I do believe it's definitely more my responsibility to be cautious than the commentators' that I like to read (yourself included).

At the same time, trying to avoid spoiling people has sometimes reached ridiculous points. I was lambasted for posting the following sentence on my blog after the first episode of "Heroes" season 3 aired: "Weevil in his jammies!!" (Someone in Australia resented my lack of a cut tag.) And I don't even consider that very spoilery, but I was told it was not my decision to make whether it was spoilery. (!!!!) I stopped reviewing TV, even in my limited, casual way, soon thereafter. Sigh.
Amanda P. said…
I'll be out of town tomorrow and staying at a hotel that doesn't have Bravo. Because of this I a) gave my husband permission to watch Top Chef without me and b) know that I need to skip any blogs or blog posts that I normally read on Thursday mornings. I know I can come to Televisionary and skip the post, because Jace won't give it away. Another site I visit WILL give it away, so I won't go there until after I get home and check my DVR. This is MY responsibility as a viewer and blog reader.

On the other hand, I will also have to be careful about some of the mainstream media options if I want to stay unspoiled until Friday afternoon. But, again, it's MY responsibility to avoid these.

Summary - I agree with Jace, even in a DVR world.
Kath (GMMR) said…
Great piece, Jace. I'm in full agreement with you with regards to spoilers with the article. It's aired so therefore it's the responsibility oh the reader to avoid articles about shows they haven't seen.

That being said I'm 100% with Myles on headlines remaining spoiler free. In this age of DVRs and time shifted watching, I believe there is a courtesy if not a responsibilty for TV writers of all sorts to post spoiler free headlines. Those saying that it's for SEO purposes clearly don't understand the basic principles of SEO.

Spoilers within posts-yes. In headlines? Personally I find it to be unnecessary. As a TV blogger myself I learned a long time ago that writing headlines with spoilers only serves to alienate my readers.
eAi said…
I agree that it's the reader's responsibility - like it would be in a conversation with a friend. You'd think they were rude and annoying if they blurted out a key plot point when they first started talking to you, in the same way I find it annoying if a post gives something away in the headline - or the first few lines (which Google Reader shows you in the main feed view).
TC said…
I generally agree with you but one thing that you don't seem to take into consideration is the World Wide aspect of the internet. Now, when I go to US sites talking about US shows I put the onus on me to avoid spoilers HOWEVER what really ticks me off is when people use global sites like Twitter or large fan forums and won't follow simple spoiler courtesies.
segue said…
I agree it is the responsibility of the reader to avoid spoilers.

As a writer, though, is it truly that difficult to extend the courtesy of a label? What is the cost?

I don't see people demanding things not be discussed, just that a simple notation be included so that they can avoid spoilers without avoiding the rest of the internet. Isn't that in the writer's best interest? Don't you want readers who come because they know they can come and read what they need and easily avoid what they must? How is it that different than labeling content PG, R, or NC-17 (or just NSFW)? Or labeling food "contains wheat", "made with Splenda", or "parve"?

Honestly, readers lamenting spoilers have a bit more of my sympathy than writers lamenting spoiler tags.
Daniel V. said…
@segue: Did you actually read the article? It has nothing to do with spoiler tags and more to do with what constitutes a spoiler. I say if it's aired it's not a spoiler. Sorry but it's true!
Anonymous said…
There are also spoiler-hounds and those who like to get their "appreciation of the care and effort that series' writers take to deploy the plots that they have carefully developed" by viewing it from a 'devoted fan perspective' - as a co-writer, almost. Watching a show knowing certain elements doesn't have to take away from the experience, and for some it enhances the "insider" feeling.
Rob Buckley said…
I'm there with the try to avoid spoilers, etc in the stuff that's visible to the general audience. I run a site that has a 50-50 mix of US and UK readers and that discusses UK and US television. If I stick plot details in the headline, picture or intro text, even on a show that's already aired, that's 50% of my audience I've just annoyed, either way, since there ain't no such thing as simultaneous transatlantic broadcast of drama.

But once I'm into the main body of the text (ie off the RSS feed and the front page), I think it's inevitable there are going to be spoilers. It's even necessary, because it's impossible to review something properly otherwise. And readers understand that and appreciate the courtesy - when they've seen the episode, they come back and read the post, sometimes months afterwards.

I do think that staying off Twitter if you want to avoid spoilers isn't a viable idea though. There's always a new episode of something airing, so you'd simply never use the service. I couldn't stop using Twitter anyway since I need it for work.

But I do think that people who live Tweet or give out spoilers do at least need to use hashtags (many don't) so they can be filtered by Twitter clients, and by preference shouldn't live Tweet - not unless they want to be unfollowed.

Ultimately, it's up to the writer/editor though. If you think you'll get more readers and people will enjoy your coverage more if you spoil, go for it. If you think that you're just going to end up with people unsubscribing/unfollowing don't. It depends what kind of trust relationship you're trying to build with your readers. You'll find out whether you're right when you see what your web stats/click throughs are like.

Oh, and for those who don't watch the news in Britain, when the sports results are up, the announcer normally says "if you don't want to know the result, look away now". There are even spoiler warnings on TV over here...
RT said…
I think everything on this subject has been said. I remember the good old days when "watercooler" talk was fun. We all talk about the latest episode of a tv show and if another co-worker didn't see it we include them on the conversation so they were up-to-date.
Now all you get is the evil eye. Puhleeze...If you can't have your favorite show as appointment televison then it's your loss.
Nick Leshi said…
Great discussion. I wrote about my thoughts on Spoilers in my blog back in May. Would love to hear what you all think about it.

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