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On the Ethics of TV Spoilers

AMC committed a cardinal sin this week — the network spoiled its own show. In a television environment where delayed viewing, time differences, and pirating mean that people watch television at highly variable times and places, spoilers are becoming ever more controversial, but AMC’s foulup was particularly egregious, as the network managed to run said spoiler before the episode even ran in some parts of the United States.

The great spoiler divide seems to reach across a chasm.

On the one side, there are those who vehemently loathe spoilers — hence the term, a reference to the belief that being fed tidbits of a story ahead of time will ‘spoil’ it. On the other, some people in fact even actively enjoy it on some occasions, depending on their preferences. Somewhere floating in the nebulous middle are those who can’t be arsed to think about them at all, because they have more important things to concern themselves with.

Back in the pre-Internet dark ages, spoilers weren’t a significant concern. Viewers in 9 Eastern/8 Central couldn’t ruin the fun for those in 9 Pacific, and trade magazines were careful when it came to running stories about upcoming television episodes. They’d tease, tantalise, and run blind items, but they’d never, ever spoil. Instead, viewers had to actively seek out information ahead of time if they wanted, by calling friends in New York, say, or working their nefarious media contacts. (Then as now, reviewers had access to advance copies that circulated through a silent underground.)

That’s changed now. With the internet, and social media in particular, those on the West Coast of the United States are inevitably doomed to spoilers if they log on while a favourite show is airing and the rest of the nation is talking about it. Meanwhile, internet gossip mags and the like are all too willing to spill the beans in advance — or at least to imply things so obvious that even the most dense of followers would get them. And, in the case of AMC, apparently networks are willing to ruin the viewing experience for their own fans.

(HBO gets a pass on Game of Thrones spoilers, given that the programme is based on a series of books, so it’s hardly ‘spoiling’ the story when everyone knows what happens — it would be like complaining about being told that Romeo dies at the end, or that Jesus rises after three days. While George R.R. Martin’s texts may not have reached Shakespeare or Biblical proportions yet, they’re well known, and the line has to be drawn somewhere.)

For the anti-spoiler crew, one can understand the opposition. There’s something delightfully exciting about watching something unfolding naturally and elegantly, without knowing what’s coming, to experience a twist viscerally in the moment as something utterly unexpected. Once that moment is experienced, it can never happen again; for all of us, there’s that moment of unspoiled pop culture we can remember that was totally shocking when we suddenly hit the reveal.

Having that experience ruined by being told the twist ahead of time would be rather devastating for those who like to live stories in the moment; the ‘I see dead people’ moment that, once it happens, can’t be unseen. It’s an iconic touchstone for the viewer, an experience that can be truly amazing when experienced fresh — much like the death of Dumbledore, it feels cheapened by being divulged in advance.

Notably, trolls infuriated Harry Potter fans in advance of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by releasing key spoilers, even shouting them aloud in lines of teens eagerly waiting for the book at midnight release powers. The glee derived from tormenting readers came, in no small part, from knowing that such knowledge, once heard, cannot be unheard, and will forever change the way the reader relates to the book.

Those in the pro-spoiler camp (for themselves, not for others — we will rise above those who think that ruining pop culture experiences for other people is a pleasurable activity) sometimes argue that what happens is less important than how it happens. Thus, finding out that Dumbledore dies at the end isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the readers still don’t know the circumstances of his death. In a way, the spoiler hangs like a tantalising prediction (almost as though Sybil Trelawny suddenly decided to get accurate), forcing readers on pins and needles to wonder when, and how, it’s going to happen.

Some also argue explicitly for spoilers on potentially traumatic content so they can make informed decisions about whether to consume pop culture. Known colloquially as content or trigger warnings, such ‘spoilers’ can make pop culture safer to engage with, and they create an awkward tension; where can such information be provided so that it’s available, but doesn’t ruin the experience for others? Surely people who want to be warned about rape, violent murder, or other traumatic events have the right to receive such warnings so they can prepare or decide not to watch, but finding a safe warning environment can be a challenge.

Among those who just don’t care, spoilers may not seem terribly important in the larger picture. When a text utilizes a gimmicky ‘twist,’ for example, viewers might be unimpressed, or might prefer to see the creators work harder to tell a narrative-driven story, rather than one that resorts to cheap tricks in an attempt to distract viewers. Thus, the debate surrounds not necessarily the trauma of being ‘spoiled,’ but whether such events matter at all in the larger scheme of things; when is an unexpected and startling event textually appropriate and interesting, and when it is simply played for attention?

There’s no way to please all spoiler camps (short of segregated internets), but the debate isn’t going to lessen in current years — if anything, it’s going to be even worse, especially if networks keep spoiling their own content.


s.e. smith

s.e. smith is the Editor in Chief at Global Comment, with publication credits including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Rewire.

2 thoughts on “On the Ethics of TV Spoilers

  1. I personally hate spoilers, but I don’t mind trigger warnings since most of these warnings of labels can prepare viewers and readers the kind of atmosphere or social situation they might encounter in a film or book. But seriously, don’t spoil!! The mystery is what we live for!

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