Last week the news of a major character’s death on a long-running network show came out during a court case involving that show’s creator and one former star (the show was Desperate Housewives and the character in question was Mike Delfino, played by James Denton (Since the episode has aired as of press time, we do not consider it a spoiler to say that now). Entertainment news being as thorough as it is these days, many outlets pounced on the opportunity to not only publish the reveal but also post their “posthumous” interviews with both the creator and killed off star on the day the information leaked, still a few full days before the episode was scheduled to air. Most outlets were respectful enough to fans-- and ABC-- to write giant spoiler warnings above the reveal so that anyone who may have “accidentally” clicked on the link wouldn’t have the surprise and sadness over the loss hit them prematurely. Still, the question remains: why would you want to ruin the emotional impact of watching such a big moment unfold with a spoiler before the fact?
About the Desperate Housewives debacle, TV fan Jessica from Los Angeles, said: “It came out of nowhere and all of a sudden it was hard to hide from. I sometimes still wish we lived in the era of Dallas where someone shot JR and you actually had to wait to see who did it. Spoilers can be a great advantage but they also take a lot of the fun out of the element of surprise.”
In today’s ever-evolving world, “spoiler” can mean different things to different people, though. A big twist in plot or major character moment such as a marriage proposal or murder always fit the bill, but these days even simply reading guest star casting news can give away more about on-screen relationship dynamics than one might expect. No one cares how Webster’s Dictionary defines anything anymore, but Insider.com’s Jarett Wieselman pointed out that any information that could potentially ruin the watching experience for fans should be treated with caution.
“Our job as TV reporters is to provide our readers with the latest breaking news, but we're also privy to lots of advance information through screeners, interviews, and general industry conversation. That's the choice we make, but our readers have not chosen this career path, so it's unfair to act like they have,” Wieselman explained.
Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence is not one to care much about releasing information early. His objective is to give potential viewers information that would make them want to tune into his show. Admitting that his series star Courteney Cox was going to be proposed to in his third season finale earlier this spring was done as a way of telling the fans, “Hey, if you’ve even been the slightest bit invested in these players, you’re not going to want to miss this episode.”
That is a sentiment often expressed by those who work on comedies-- hoping to excite viewers into tuning in by giving away story points but not spilling punchlines or specific jokes. Still, even the best intentions can sometimes backfire, as Jessica shared knowing that momentous event was coming somewhere within the half-hour episode, she couldn’t stop waiting for it to happen, and that distracted from how she watched the episode overall. Such is often the case for fans who hungrily devour promotional photos from upcoming episodes of their favorite shows, only to see important character or couple moments depicted within. Without complete context, TV fan Ruth C. pointed out, it's more speculation than spoiler, but it still may say too much. Knowing a "will they or won't they couple" will get close in a certain episode is one thing, but actually seeing the photo where the two embrace can take a lot of the "Did that just happen!?" out of the viewing experience.
Community’s own Yvette Nicole Brown is one of the leading champions of the “just watch and be surprised” mentality, though. “I really feel like if you’re the type of person who wants to know everything that’s going to happen, there should be a place online that you can go. But I think it’s really wrong to just kamikaze announce on Twitter and blogs what’s happening because I like to enjoy what’s happening; I like to see it. You can tell me a guest star’s coming, but don’t tell me who he is! Don’t tell me the plot! Someone on Twitter called it “ruiners.” There are spoilers and ruiners. A spoiler is something that gets you excited, like ‘Malcolm-Jamal Warner; yea!’ A ruiner is ‘And when he’s there, he’s going to do this, this, and this.’ I think sometimes it’s this desire to be ‘I was the first to know.’ You don’t get a gold star for knowing first!”
So, where is that line between teasing something to stir buzz and giving away everything? Many television viewers who had long-since stopped watching Desperate Housewives may have planned to tune back in to see who would die in its final season but learning ahead of time meant you no longer had to. All of the misdirects of danger in the episode were for naught when you went into it already knowing who would not survive.
Julie Plec, executive producer of The Vampire Diaries echoed this sentiment: “There were a couple of things this year where I felt like things crossed the line between spoilers in good fun and “moment-ruiners.” I know that’s a subjective label from me the writer…A lot of fans actually really enjoy knowing what’s coming. But I wish the ghosts’ return in “Ghost World” could have been kept a tighter secret so the audience could have really been genuinely astonished and surprised, rather than knowing everyone who’s coming.”
Often enough, the networks themselves are the ones doing a great deal of the “spoiling” through the promotional photos, episode-specific clips, and even longer-term promos they use on-air. The copy for the season finale spot for ABC Family's Switched at Birth literally said the episode will "end with a shocker no one will see coming"-- and then proceeded to show a potentially game-changing character return. They could have had two surprising moments, but they chose to spoil one.
With the ever-evolving social platform online, much of the information one would label as a spoiler comes straight from those who are producing the content. To this, many fans have instituted self-imposed social media bans during specific nights and times, but that isn't always enough, as news is often broken and shared days and weeks before air. An overzealous actor eager to express excitement about filming a particularly memorable scene can be the culprit, which ultimately spurs on the journalists whose job it is to break such news in the first place.
“An equal number of shows have begun breaking casting news/images through their own social media platform, the race to break news has become even that much more intense-- which is why you see people striving for over-sensationalism in their headlines, tweets and stories,” Wieselman pointed out.
Other fans are often a link in the spoiler chain, finding out information and feeling a need to pass it on, perhaps out of a need to prove they know more about their favorite show than other fans or perhaps just out of sheer uncontainable excitement over the discovery.
“It's one thing to speculate with other fans and hint at things…However, in today's world where social media is so prevalent, it's hard to have full control of what you see or hear. While the majority of responsibility lies with networks and the people affiliated with the shows to keep important information under-wraps until a show airs, I think fans themselves need to learn to respect other fans and not ruin things for others. Just think before you type and post a comment or tweet. Pause before you click the button and ask, ‘Is it something you wouldn't mind coming across on accident or would it bother you?’” Ruth C. considered.
One studio publicist who preferred to be quoted anonymously explained the race to get ahead of spoilers:
“We give our players guidelines on how to responsibly use social media,” the publicist admitted, “and we can monitor what they say, but we only see [the offending spoiler] after it has gone out into the world via a Tweet or Instagram, and even if we can reel it in and have them remove it, sometimes it is too late. Once it has been put on the internet, it’s never really gone. The story can spread; outlets can and often will pick it up. We never want to deny something we know to be true, but we often will decline to comment at the time in order to keep the story as minimal as possible.”
With spoilers so widely defined, encompassing everything from guest star news, to couple moments released simply in images, to major character life moments, not every fan will ever be truly satisfied by the amount of information they are given ahead of watching their favorite show. But the bottom line is, it should always be up to them to decide how much they learn ahead of time. Unfortunately with the increasingly larger supply of information, that control is getting harder and harder to keep.
Do you guys seek out spoilers or do you prefer to just "watch cold," so to speak? Sound off in the comments below with your take!