Spoiler Alert: The Responsibility Of Online Writers In A Hulu/DVR World

[Photo by Flickr user Cheryl]

Note: The following contains potential spoilers for third season of Mad Men. We've hidden them in invisotext so you can easily avoid them if desired.

Here at /Film and on the /Filmcast, we deal with the issue of spoilers on a daily basis. We are true fans of the moviegoing experience, and although we cover news about movies that won't come out for months or years, we try not to reveal a movie's plot details if we think they could potentially spoil the joys of watching that film. If we do reveal such details, we scrupulously attempt to ensure that these are marked clearly (aurally or textually) with a spoiler warning. [In general, when I refer to spoilers, I'm referring to plot elements that occur more than 1/3rd of the way through the film, although there are certainly many exceptions to this.]

I was scanning through my Twitter feed this morning when I saw a link to an article at Televisionary entitled "Spoil-Sport: Why Talking About An Episode That's Already Aired Isn't a Spoiler." The context for the piece: Earlier, Televisionary author Jace Lacob had published a spoiler-heavy piece over at the Daily Beast, with the title "Mad Men Postmortem." The piece featured a lengthy interview with series creator Matt Weiner, but its opening, bolded paragraph led off with the following: "Dead presidents, divorce, and new digs." I have not seen more than one episode of Mad Men, but I have been told that these words (arguably) reveal key plot points for the ending of Season 3. And obviously, the interview itself discusses major spoiler-ific plot points in detail [Side note: Hunter's Mad Men season three wrap-up discusses this interview and other topics in-depth].

One of the commenters cried foul:

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?

In Lacob's post responding to this commenter, Lacob argued that while he also hated being spoiled, it is unreasonable to expect that an article not contain spoilers if it's about a TV episode that's already aired. According to Lacob:

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.

I think I may agree with Lacob's general reasoning for this particular article: Anyone that clicks on a "Mad Men Postmortem" the day after the season finale has aired (even if they aren't aware that the season finale has just aired) is probably asking for trouble. But in general, I find this argument pretty objectionable. Where I get off this train of argument is Lacob's unrelenting insistence that a) it is completely the reader's responsibility to keep track of when shows air even if they live in different countries/territories, and if they don't then they are screwing themselves, and b) Critics should not and do not have any responsibility to alert readers of what plot details they are revealing, so long as they are writing after the show has aired.

As a thought exercise, think of how people would respond if a film critic said the equivalent: "If a movie's already come out, then I'm allowed to give away spoilers with reckless abandon!" They'd be figuratively pilloried in the internet square. TV is obviously a different animal; for broadcast television, people have access to these shows for free, and so there is a greater possibility that you would have been able to experience a program when it originally aired. Cable television is the same way, to a large degree. It's a lot easier to expect that your readers sat in front of the tube for one of their favorite shows' finales, than it is to expect your readers to have gone out and forked over $12 for a 2-hour movie the previous weekend.

But let's talk about TV specifically. The world of broadcast and cable television is rapidly moving away from the idea of fixed schedules for television shows. Very few of my friends and colleagues watch shows on TV when the air, and if they do, they also use things like DVD, DVR, and Hulu to supplement the episodes they don't see. On the one hand, I question how realistic and reasonable it is to expect people to know exactly where a show is in its timeline. If you're catching up with a show on DVD/DVR/Hulu, it's entirely possible that you will have no idea what episodes have recently aired. And while you would be a good, well-behaved TV watcher if you kept informed, it's a lot easier for me to take five seconds to write a one-sentence spoiler warning than for you to find out where exactly a show is in its release schedule.

Put aside the idea of spoiler warnings for a moment. I've seen many TV writers (and some film writers, including us occasionally) put critical plot details in the title, or in the case of Lacob's article, in the opening paragraph/lede. If I like reading a blog like Televisionary, it's hard for me avoid plot details if they call out to me from the title of a post. This practice strikes me as gratuitous and unnecessary. As online writers, we should be making it easier for people to enjoy entertainment, not harder, which is what happens when we make spoilers really difficult to avoid. I put this point to Jace and he responded: "That's an editorial decision, not the writer's. Post-finale interviews by nature discuss the finale as well as previous eps..." I understand if it's beyond your control how your post is titled and what the abstract is, but everything I'm saying should apply to content creators and their editors: Why not do the humane thing and put the plot details where they might not be so conspicuous? Your title can still be catchy without incorporating crucial plot details.

In fact, that's perhaps my biggest objection to Lacob's piece: My visceral reaction that his article seems to be advocating for some sort of laziness on the part of writers. Really, how difficult is it to just throw up a sentence at the beginning of the post explaining what exactly you'll cover/spoil? Does it really break up the flow of the article? Does it really disrupt, artistically, what you are trying to do with your writing? You probably saw that I put a quick one-sentence spoiler warning at the top of this post. If you've made it this far, you might agree that it was no skin off my back or yours, but it might have saved a few readers from getting spoiled.

That wasn't so hard, was it?

Discuss: What do you think of spoilers, especially for TV shows? Do you find them easy/difficult to avoid when you're online? And what obligations, if any, do online writers have to prevent readers from getting spoiled?