Spoilers are Good for TV

3 Dec

We have mentioned at various points throughout the course the relevance of certain shows being “spoilable.” A common characteristic of modern TV shows, especially serialized dramas, is how rapidly spoilers for new episodes proliferate in internet communities. This is by no means a unique quality of TV – every story can be spoiled (spoiling the ending of “Citizen Kane” has actually become a trope… on TV) – but in light of our last set of readings on how TV as a medium seems to have recently grown infinitely elastic, the idea of spoilers and what role they play in the culture of viewership calls for another look.

No matter how TV becomes distributed in the future, it will never cease to be a spontaneous medium. After our viewing of 24, in fact, some of the class noted that we were comfortable enough being dropped in the middle of a late season of a show we may never have seen. This is, for those who have TV sets in their homes and enjoy any  level of “channel surfing,” a very common viewing experience that is arguably even more prevalent than the intensely serial or “binge” watching we have also discussed. Moreover, binges often begin because seeing one out-of-place episode inspires us to watch the series in order. This Summer, my friends were all but handcuffing me to a chair until I watched the first season of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, but I did not pull up the episodes online and watch all twelve (in two days) until I happened to catch what must have been the eighth or ninth episode of the season airing on Nick. Only once I had a taste of what the show was like as it was ramping up to its season climax did I finally have the impetus to engage with it – plus, that episode contained, as I would later find out, arguably the biggest plot twist of the season. Korra had effectively spoiled me into viewership.

At risk of paying lip service to any disdainful baby boomers out there: our generation is spoiled. Spend a few hours on any combination of internet social networks and news sources and you stand a very good chance of coming out of it knowing a few explicit plot details of a TV show you have never watched. New methods of distribution may have left behind the communal aspect of TV as we knew it – the whole family gathering around the set while millions of other families all over the country do the same – but TV is as communal an experience as ever. The only difference is that, in the post-Buffy era, a large part of the communal experience is found on the internet (Netflix and Hulu know where their constituents are and made the wise choice of meeting them there), but online dialogics (forums, facebook) are only one dimension of this communal experience. Watching a show does not stop when the episode is over, as there is an abundance of information (imdb), audio commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, and fan tributes or parodies to keep up with. And I can say from experience that engaging with all of these more or less apocryphal media while trying to stay ‘spoiler-free’ is nigh impossible. My own paranoia about staying spoiler-free has sometimes even led me to see spoilers where there are none, either because the moment in question is not all that relevant to the progression of the plot or because it simply does not happen in the show.

As culture converges and the Information Super Highway bulges at the seams with all sorts of data about the show one is currently catching up on, one’s only option is to keep watching. TiVo and all other kinds of digital recording may have unmoored TV from its comfortably routine schedule, but timeliness of viewership is not gone – it is a burden that has now been transferred to the individual viewer herself. Every day that passes is one more chance for the ending of the season to be spoiled, thus I binge if I am behind. This is something that was not possible in the earliest era of TV, when one imagines that “Last time on…” was as much a needed resource for viewers as an assurance to the network that each episode succeeds as a stand-alone (ironically now, even the recap could be considered a spoiler if one missed the prior episode), and marginally more possible after the introduction of the VCR. The dissolution of mass-viewing events, when millions of families tune in at the exact same time, and its effects on TV culture may thus be somewhat overstated by Lotz, Spigel, and Dawson, as anyone who did not watch the new episode premiere on prime time will watch it at their earliest convenience at pain of spoilers. With perhaps a day or two of variable error, the nation still watches TV communally.

Spoilers pull us into a show, by leaking twists and reveals that we are enticed to mentally reverse-engineer, and they turn us into self-policing communal watchers who stay up to date with the show despite TV’s waning dependence on time and schedule. Especially given the excess of “bonus material,” canon or fan-generated, it is hard to say that one can ever truly be “caught up” with a show. In the Post-Network Era, viewing is still communal and dictated by time, but that time stretches indefinitely into the future rather than designating one specific block of time, as it once did. Those who wish TV to be unfettered from its highly commercial identity might find this change, not good, but bad for TV. You may be right: all I necessarily mean by “Spoilers are Good for TV” is that the TV industry has made the most of digital culture’s idiosyncrasies, having stumbled upon a self-sustaining system of viewership that compels customers to consume media very quickly and frequently. In that sense it is good for the industry rather than the viewer. I would relegate the viewer’s alleged gain in control over TV in our current era as existing only within the sphere of production, i.e. those who create fan-based content with what is now readily available (usually technically copyrighted) media. However, there is also some experiment to be performed involving how the spoiler works within TV as an art form. Part of the idea of avoiding the spoiler is to commune over the show by having a uniform experience of it, unmarred by foreknowledge of certain events that may vary from person to person. To see the show unspoiled is, in a sense, to see the show in the way it was meant to be seen. Could we thus imagine a serialized drama, or even a comedy, that is designed with spoilers in mind? Spoilers can sometimes be put out of mind, but what if this show were designed to leak specific spoilers, either through marketing or through audience reaction, and be an entirely different experience for the viewer depending which reality-altering plot twists she got wind of prior to watching? Or is the communal aspect of viewership, in whatever form it takes, too valuable for any TV studio to tamper with in that way?

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