Alert: We Want Spoiler Alerts…Or Do We?

November 16, 2009
By | 11 Comments's popular "Spoilt" tee, designed by Olly MossOn Tuesday, November 9, Jace Lacob of Televisionary put up a post regarding the topic of spoilers. The author was sounding off in reaction to a comment he received on that morning’s post for The Daily Beast—one in which he interviewed Mad Men creator Matt Weiner about the series’ season finale (which aired Sunday, November 8). A Daily Beast commenter, “overdue,” ranted: “Hey Jace Lacob, have you ever heard of alerting your readers with “Spoiler Alert”?!?!?! Thanks, I’m only on the 6th episode of this season, now I guess I don’t need to watch anymore? Really, is it asking too much for you to say “Spoiler Alert” at the head of your article?”

Overdue’s admonishment set off a string of replies and, of course, Lacob’s longer response on Televisionary, in which he claims that “spoilers” aren’t spoilers if the episode in question has already aired. Moreover, he and his defenders argue that the post title “Mad Men Postmortem” should indicate to any reader paying attention that information about the season finale would be part of the forthcoming content. Those criticizing Lacob counter that the lead of the story, visible “above the fold,” reveals a few crucial plot points. (I’ll leave out what it said, precisely, because…um…spoiler alert…but you can see it by clicking the link to Lacob’s Daily Beast post above.)

Ultimately, the debate comes down to a handful of questions:

1) Is “spoiler” an accurate term when you’re talking about episodes of TV that have already aired (or, I would add, films which are in release)?

2) Do those who write about media have a responsibility to clearly proclaim their writing contains information that reveals crucial plot points of a TV series or film?

3) If so, for how long after airing/release should the public expect such a warning? An hour? Week? Year? Decade? (In other words: is it spoiling to tell someone that Soylent Green is made of people, or that Darth Vader is Luke’s father? Oh. Um…oops. Spoiler alert!)

What do you think?


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11 Responses to “ Alert: We Want Spoiler Alerts…Or Do We? ”

  1. Matt Sienkiewicz on November 16, 2009 at 9:55 AM

    Yeah, this has always baffled me, at least in so far as media specific commentary is concerned. If the article is about a show you haven’t seen, why would you think it would not include things you don’t know? It’s one thing if Larry King or Bill Simmons drops something into the middle of an otherwise off-topic column, but if it’s called Mad Men Postmortem and you think the article is going to speak in vague generalities, well, I’m not sure why you were going to read it in the first place.

    I suppose the confusion lies in the distinction between a “review” and more in-depth criticism. You would not want Roger Ebert to tell you he was dead all along, but an article in Cineaste would seem pretty lacking if it failed to address that sort of thing.

    Generally we don’t “review” specific episodes, I imagine a) because traditionally it would be too late to actually watch it b) it’s free anyway and once most people are aware of a series, a review of a specific episode seems unlikely to be persuasive. Perhaps neither of those reasons pertain any longer given the variety of legal and illegal time-shifting strategies available?

  2. Annie Petersen on November 16, 2009 at 10:28 AM

    The underlying issue seems to be time-shifting. In other words, there wouldn’t be nearly the anxiety over spoilers if the entire nation were expected to watch an episode when it actually aired. But because of the ease with which we all schedule our own viewing (even as a devoted media scholar, I never appointment-view) we’re all on different schedules as to viewing. When it comes to zeitgeist series like Mad Men, many viewers are just now entering the series, catching up, etc. (My social circle is at various points in the first, second, and third season.) I also think the anxiety is rooted in the recent renaissance of primetime serial television — I was never that concerned over what happened in a specific episode of Family Matters or Full House, but Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos, even Vampire Diaries raise the stakes of spoiling.

    What, then, are the ethics of spoiling on Facebook? I watched the Mad Men finale a day late, but saw many friends posting “You go, Peggy!” or “I hate you, Betty” on Sunday night. Not spoilers, per se…

    Case in point: when I viewed the lawnmower episode from this season a day late, I already knew that said lawnmower would play an explosive role. I didn’t know the specifics, but I held my breath everytime the machine appeared on screen. Was the narrative suspense ruined? Heightened? Altered entirely?

    • Erin Copple Smith on November 16, 2009 at 11:49 AM

      Annie, the point about FB “spoilers” is really a good one, I think. Many times, I’ve seen even cryptic spoilers (like the ones you describe, or of the, “So bummed about tonight’s Project Runway aufing”), and the information (however small) definitely shades my viewing. I’m left thinking, “Well, who would that person NOT have wanted to be auf’d?” or whatever.

      You’re also absolutely right–this type of spoiler is certainly a phenomenon of the time-shifting era. No one would have been upset if someone had “spoiled” M*A*S*H–because anyone who cared would have had to watch it live. No spoilers.

      • Rebecca Bley on November 16, 2009 at 4:30 PM

        We have similar problems with cut tags on LiveJournal. Even if someone is cut-tagging (hiding) the actual spoilers, naming the cut-tag link, “Tonight’s ep – OMG I am totally sobbing!” can really color your perceptions. As you say, Erin, it’s hard not to start analyzing that particular poster and what she might be sobbing about.

        Then again, I am a spoiler-phobe. I don’t even like watching the official, “Next week on this show…” promos at the end of eps 🙂

  3. Jonathan Gray on November 16, 2009 at 2:40 PM

    When Jason Mittell and I did our study on spoilers, it began with us just not getting why people would enjoy them. But I think both of us moved over to the other side of the issue somewhat, not only through realizing how spoilers can be used to manage one’s interaction with a text (ostensibly, our topic), but also because you’re not saying much about your beloved text if all it is is a plotline. After all, generations of Eng Lit teachers haven’t felt they need to worry about spoiling lit, especially since much lit comes pre-spoiled (think Oedipus), so why should we?

    That said, the dilemma speaks to a key conflict with being both media scholars and media viewers — as scholars, I don’t think many rules about spoiling need apply, but as viewers, it’s simply rude at times to reveal something. In a conference paper or class, we’re on safer ground, but in hybrid spaces like here, or Facebook, or so forth, the etiquette is so much more murky.

    All abstract rambling aside, I think there should be a point of no return — if you haven’t seen a show in a year, you give up all rights to complain about spoilers, to anyone. There’s something very selfish about requiring the world to shut up just because you’re lazy, running late, or whatever. As a Wire fan, I want to talk about it with people, and am tired of being told I can’t because someone in the room hasn’t yet seen episode 1, let alone Stringer being killed by Omar. Yes, I’m going there 😉

  4. Derek Kompare on November 16, 2009 at 3:38 PM

    There’s something about the incredible flexibility we have these days to watch TV or films that produces the very concept of “spoiler.” I don’t recall ever having worried about this way back when our favorite shows were only ever available in reruns (though I do faintly remember the issue of “we haven’t cycled back around to the beginning yet”).

    These days, issuing a “spoiler warning” is thus a social courtesy, an acknowledgment that we consume media at different rates. That said, its absence is not necessarily a social violation. The middle ground, IMHO, is 24 hours after a broadcast, if that. I certainly don’t view things that quickly all the time, but any more than that seems unnecessarily burdensome. I just learn not to wade into possible areas that might “spoil” plot points (but which are not technically “spoilers” per se, since said episode has been broadcast). Thus, no Twitter for me this week till after I see “The Waters of Mars.” (and, please, no spoilers here! 🙂 )

  5. Josh David Jackson on November 16, 2009 at 11:19 PM

    Like Rebecca, I’m a spoiler-phobe (I don’t even watch the previously-on segments in fear that what they choose to summarize will reveal too much about the current episode’s content).

    I agree that everything is on the table when discussing media as a scholar or when spoiler warnings are given, but I tend to be very careful with them as a fan or even as a teacher, particularly, as Annie mentioned above, when people could potentially come to a series or season years after it originally aired (some of my students are just getting into Dexter and True Blood, for instance). And, yes, I wouldn’t reveal the reason beyond Hawkeye’s breakdown in the finale of M*A*S*H without an “Is anyone going to watch it?” first.

    It’s interesting that the discussion here has mostly centered around “prestige” dramas, though. What about reality TV or sports? Are immediate reveals fair game in these cases? What about restating jokes or gags? My students this semester start off every Monday by doing a Larry David bit from the previous night’s Curb.

    • Annie Petersen on November 17, 2009 at 8:37 AM

      Sports is an interesting intervention into this discussion. Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy) has talked about how long he can make bets with his children as to who will win games that, unbeknownst to them, are actually running on ESPN Classic.

      ESPN Classic is the most obvious victim of ‘spoilers’ — or is it a spoiler if it’s a famous game? But isn’t that the same question circulating around the finale of M*A*S*H?

    • Jonathan Gray on November 17, 2009 at 9:08 AM

      I don’t like being spoiled in theory, but in practice it makes very little difference, and jokes are actually a really good example of why spoilers shouldn’t matter so much. After all, a good comedian has the fine art of delivery, and delivery is everything; thus, someone telling me a joke from a show will either tell it worse and thus make the original better when I experience it, or tell it better, which means I enjoy their version better anyway. The same should apply with plot and drama — I’ve had things from The Wire or Lost told to me in advance, but the way they do it is masterful, and thus I can appreciate the “operational aesthetic” all the better.

      • Matt Sienkiewicz on November 18, 2009 at 2:20 AM

        Sports is generally thought to be ‘news,’ so if it’s already happened there’s no protecting it I’d say. It would be akin to ‘spoiling’ the results of last year’s elections. I suppose that points to the in between place that sports takes up, not quite just entertainment, not officially anything more, with the exception of the Olympics where politics tends to make far less subtle appearances.

  6. Erin Copple Smith on November 17, 2009 at 3:51 PM

    I’m not a major spoiler-phobe. Like Derek mentions here, I just stay away from places where spoilers are likely to be. And if I come across a spoiler, I figure it’s my own damn fault if I’m spoiled because I’m not on top of my TV viewing. I’m many eps behind on Mad Men–if I get spoiled (and I have, now), well, that’s just the way it is. (Of course, Mad Men is less about plot than it is about mood, so spoilers aren’t really a huge deal.)

    Nonetheless–I think, in the discussion of spoilers and social protocol, it seems safer to just be cautious. Did Jace need a spoiler alert on his post? Probably not. “Mad Men Postmortem” does, in fact, suggest that he’ll be dissecting the finale in the post. What irks me, though, is the fact that there was vital plot information “above the fold.” If you tweet or FB something that’s going to show up in my stream and you reveal crucial plot information…well, that’s just not nice. Especially, as Jonathan says, within 24 hours of the ep’s airing, etc.

    And, as Matt notes, in the case of reviews, all bets are off. Reviewers of the type that actually analyze (not just “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down”) have to reveal plot information. If you go looking for it, then you know what you’re going to find.