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Spoiler Expiration Dates

[There will be no actual spoilers in this discussion. Please refrain from posting any real spoilers of your own.]

In my last post, I discussed the impact that the death of John Spencer would have on the TV show The West Wing. As part of my discussion, I made reference to plot elements that took place last season and in the opening episode of this season. Although it's mostly led to a few replies regarding my speculation, one reply got me thinking in a different direction. One friend politely suggested that I should put the "spoilery bits" behind an LJ cut:

i'm very slowly working my way through West Wing (having just acquired Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD a couple months ago), and i've been trying to avoid hearing too much about what happens in later seasons...

Which leads me to open up a question I've been considering for a while here -- what's the expiration date on a plot point being a spoiler?

To begin with, a little historical perspective. In the "olden days," defined by me as before people frequently used the word "spoiler," the idea of spoiling a TV show was almost unheard of. In fact, because rerun schedules were spotty and there were no mass market VCRs, people tended to have the opposite feelings about spoilers. If you missed an episode of a favorite TV show, you would go to work the next day and ask someone what had happened. After all, you wanted to be up to date for next week's episode.

With movies, this was not the case. Movies would be available in the theaters for a long time, and people tended to go see a film over a period of many weeks. If you got together with a friend who had already seen the movie, people understood if you didn't want to discuss it. After all, you're going to spend good money to see the film yourself; you don't want to know what happens. You want to be surprised. But by the time the movie was showing up on television or being discussed in film classes, it was assumed that most people wouldn't worry about having the plot spoiled for them.

Of course, this was also long before the the VCR, the Internet, the DVD Player, the Digital Video Recorder, and file-swapping. Today, we tend to time-shift our viewing a lot, watching TV shows when it's convenient for us, not for the networks. (For example, Nomi and I have not had the time to watch a single episode of Smallville yet this season, but we have it all on tape.) And because we watch our TV shows and movies on different schedules, we now have a very different perspective on spoilers. I don't want someone telling me what happened on an episode of Lost that I missed two weeks ago, because I now have it saved and can watch it for myself.

But what happens when you're catching up with either a TV show or a movie that was first released months or years ago?

Nomi and I had an experience like this when it came to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We hadn't bothered with the show when it first came on the air, but in the fourth season we caught the episode "Hush" and found ourselves wanting more. But we didn't want to start in the middle; we still wanted to get in on the ground floor. Fortunately, we knew people who had recorded the first three seasons on videotape and were willing to lend them to us. And because we wanted to maintain an element of surprise, we made sure to avoid all discussions, electronic and otherwise, about the first three seasons of the show. (We did the same thing with The X-Files, as I recall; when the movie came out, the FX Network broadcast the series from the beginning, and we took advantage of that to catch up from the start.)

Screenwriter and novelist William Goldman (who wrote The Princess Bride and many other wonderful things) has an interesting take on the statute of limitations on spoilers. In a column he published just before the 1993 Oscars ("Year of the Dog," March 22, 1993, reprinted in his collection The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays), Goldman discusses the movie The Crying Game and says the following:

There has been a lot of coyness when people discuss this flick. "Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know the secret." That kind of thing.

To which I say, horsepucky.

[Goldman then reveals the big secret of the film]

There. Secret out.

Now why was I such a crummy spoilsport?...By the time you read this, the movie will have been playing in town well into its sixteenth week. If you haven't seen it by now, then you're not a movie fan, and you wouldn't have gone anyway. When does the statute of limitations on surprises run out? I say at sixteen weeks.

Of course, as I noted above, the world has changed a lot in the past twelve years. Am I at fault if I reveal the secret in the movie Citizen Kane (1941)? Should a discussion of King Kong (1933) be kept under wraps? What about movies based on books, like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia? Is there anyone out there who is still unspoiled as to the identity of the man behind Darth Vader's mask, and would be legitimately upset if the name were revealed?

Which leads me to yesterday's post. As noted above, I casually referenced an event that took place last season on The West Wing. The main spoiler I mentioned in passing came from the beginning of season 6 of the show, and we're now deep in the middle of season 7. In other words, my friend quoted above feels that plot points from an episode broadcast in October 2004 -- a full 14 months in the past -- should still be placed under a spoiler warning.

So...at what point is it my responsibility to keep spoilers hidden, and at what point does it become your responsibility to avoid spoilers? After one season? Two? Three? What's the current culturally accepted norm? I'm genuinely curious.


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I, personally, think it is always the consumer's responsibility to avoid spoilers, but that it is also always most polite for the poster to cut for spoilers--no matter how old the text/media might be.

Although, I do think there are some spoilers that have become so ingrained in our culture that it is hard to imagine them as spoilers. For example, after the latest Star Wars movie, I saw a young 'un complaining that they'd been spoiled when someone commented on the true identity of Darth Vadar. Now, most people our age would be shocked to think anyone could be spoiled on that fact, but apparently some of these whipper-snappers haven't seen the original films yet and didn't know.

Again, I tend to think that it is always the consumer's responsibility to avoid being spoiled, but it is polite to help them in their mission by cut tagging, etc. :)
I should note that in repsonse to my friend's request, I didn't add a cut-tag, but I did add a specific spoiler warning at the start of the post.

I do tend to take on the responsibility myself -- but on the other hand, there are times when the responsibility shouldn't be on me. As an example, this season on Lost a character was killed, and the next morning the front page of AOL revealed who had died in a headline. A lot of people were upset at AOL for doing that, and I tend to feel they were justified. It's one thing to know that I have to avoid the front page of a website called something like "Lost Spoilers Galore!" It's another thing to find out that I should have avoided the front page of one of the mainstream ISPs.
Eh. I'm terribly fond of McLeod's Daughters, as is my family, and we've spent huge chunks of the last year or so stuffing ourselves with series DVDs of seasons 1-4. Season 5 is just about to end in Australia, and my family is dying to see the stuff.

Needless to say, all Australia and Canada that cared knew the details long before *we* did...
I think 3 months or so is an appropriate spoiler frame for anything that's available in the U.S. media.

Your friend's late entry into watching the West Wing, or conscious decision to time-shift, in no way obligates others to modify their comments on the off chance that someone, somewhere in blogland, does not know something yet. That's my two cents on the matter. I do try to be careful when I know others have not seen something yet (e.g. SG Atlantis eps that have not aired in the U.S.), but that's a courtesy, not an obligation.
Three months does sound like a reasonable number.

As I noted, I did edit the post to indicate at the start exactly which episodes would be referenced, so anyone who comes to it from now on will know. I'll probably do something similar in later posts.
Before reading your cut, I was going to raise the issue of movie spoilers...

Interesting sociological issues that you raise...

I make it a habit not to discuss any movie in a public place where I can be overheard. I felt incredibly vindicated recently when I overheard someone at a restaurant make a comment about the end of The Sixth Sense, a movie that has been on my "watch!" list since it was released (though it might not actually be on my netfix queue, hm.) There is a certain highly acclaimed movie circa 1990 that was ruined for me in its entirety because someone said "he dies at the end" -- and I spent the whole movie waiting and waiting, besides which, it was a different "he" than I expected!

Television that I expect to be spoilered at work the following day, for instance West Wing, I will go out of my way to watch that evening or avoid areas where people tend to discuss it. And then there is the issue of syndicated reruns being shown out of chronological order in honor of realtime-season-related episodes. (Okay, fine, I'm hooked on JAG regardless...)

Finally, a tangentally related question to which you might know the answer-- how far ahead has West Wing filmed?
Since it's the actual execution of the idea that matters far more than the description of it, I've never given a rat's patootie about spoilers. I'm especially tired of spoiler lunatics who don't even want to know who the guest stars will be on next week's episode of Stargate and won't watch "coming next week" commericals because that will apparently spoil their enjoyment of it.

I think I officially lost patience with the whole notion of spoiler avoidance when I got yelled at on a mailing list for "spoiling" Apollo 13.
Since you brought up Apollo 13, one tangent I'd like to note is how well the nightmare sequence worked. It helped ratchet up the suspense for those of us who knew how the whole thing was going to end anyway...
I got spoiled for Citizen Kane by Peanuts comics, of all things.
Linus is watching it for the first time and Lucy spoils it for him - and for me.
I think all's fair within a couple of weeks after the show has aired. I mean, I'm watching The Sopranos and Six Feet Under on DVD and am way behind, and I have learned so much inadvertently about what's coming up. It's the cost of doing business when you're that far behind. I do try to *avoid* being spoiled, but I also know it's probably going to happen. C'est la vie.

It's not your responsibility to protect every fan in the world. *g*

Look! Luke and Lorelai kissed four months ago! Bwa ha ha! ;)
Only a couple of weeks? That's not a big window. Interesting...
I believe for tv shows, and this purely personal, any time into the second season is okay for first season spoilers. I mean, after that, it's the viewer's responsibility to avoid anything about things they haven't yet seen.

Movies are a bit different. I still remember when "The Crying Game" came out and people were very good about not giving away the secret before I saw the movie...but then I tended to see films closer to when they were actually released back then.

I don't think you should worry. This commenter who was upset because they're only now working through West Wing shouldn't penalize those of us who've kept up with the show if we want to discuss and speculate.

But that's just me.
On the other hand, I did acknowledge the spoiler question after the fact, and I posted an edit at the beginning of the post warning about the episodes that were being spoiled....
Um, actually I didn't label the area as a spoiler originally; I added the warning after she pointed out to me that what I posted could be considered a spoiler.
Me? I think William Goldman is far too generous with his 16 week rule. If I chose to put off watching a film or TV show for a day, a week, or a year, then I accept the risk that I might encounter someone who's already seen it, and who might spill the beans. It's not your responsibility to "protect" me from a conscious choice I've made.

And I just have to shake my head at what some people call "spoilers." Does knowing this single plot point from West Wing "spoil" the entire season? I've only watched through season four myself, but I have to imagine there are many plot threads of which I am still unaware, not to mention that, despite knowing this one thing, I still don't know how that effects the events that follow.
also, "this particular" plot point from west wing...was featured in all sorts of promos and commercials for the show at the time it first aired! so for example, i don't watch the show and i was aware of the plot point as it was happening. the network didn't intend for the surprise to continue into reruns, the way moviemakers do.

i view TV a little differently than movies. i had a friend spoil "sixth sense" for me, sitting at my dinnertable six months after it came out. no warning, no way for me to stop/interrupt him (he said the thing, and then said the movie name)...and when i protested, he then got indignant at me for not having seen the movie yet! ghaaa.
I think it's largely the consumer's responsibility. At one end of the spectrum, it would be unreasonable for you to post in a huge blinking font, the day after the first airing of an episode, a really huge spoiler. At the other extreme, minor years-old points don't rate a special mention. In the case of your post, I didn't consider the VP thing a spoiler (it was more than a year ago) and for the stuff from the first episode of this season, you started by saying something like "in the first episode of this season we learned...", which is ample warning to stop reading.

It might be more important to be careful in conversation, because it's easier to avert one's eyes than one's ears, but even so, I think you gave enough warning for an episode that aired three months ago.

There are lots of shows/movies I haven't seen yet but mean to someday. I can't expect my friends to (1) keep that information in mind and (2) tiptoe around me. If I haven't seen the Star Wars movies yet, it's my own fault if I don't get the benefit of every surprise.
Quick question--

Does Sixth Sense really have a "Crying Game Level" Spoiler (so to speak), that has led so many people to mention it in their comments or did everyone just pick up on it as an example since it had been already cited earlier in the comments? (To be honest, I don't 100% remember what the spoiler I heard was because I am trying to block it out. Though that is partly wishful thinking...)

(um, to prevent spoilers, this is a "Yes/No" question. Actually, it has been raised in my household that *mentioning* that there is a major spoiler to a movie is inherently a spoiler in and of itself... which goes back to one of mabfan's points about the Golding article)
well, sortof. i don't think it spoils the movie per se (and i am one who knew the thing before i saw it the first time), but it spoils an "oh wow" aspect of it. also, since sixth sense was released, there have been a number of TV movies/etc that have used the same thing, so if someone were to watch it for the first time just now, they'd likely figure it out from the very start in a "how could anyone not have pegged this from the beginning" sort of way.

but it was the first to do this thing, so at the time it was a big surprise.

as another example of "not really spoiling"...by the time i saw "Crying Game," i knew the Big Secret and it didn't spoil the movie for me one whit. then again, i suspect i would have figured it out pretty quickly anyway. call it a result of growing up so close to NYC. ;)
so, i actually agree that it's generally the consumer's responsibility to avoid spoilers. but the nature of avoidance is such that one can only avoid things that are either 1) active things that would clearly expose you to spoilers, such as going to a show-specific website discussion page, or 2) passive things that you are warned about, such as being part of a conversation and having someone bring up the topic -- at this point you are free to excuse yourself for the duration of the discussion. the thing about an lj post is that it shows up passively on my friends' page. now that there's a warning at the top of the post i can simply close my eyes as i scroll quickly past it, which works fine.

i also agree that if a consumer is late watching something, they are taking a chance that spoilers will reach them no matter how careful they are or aren't, and they should be able to gracefully acknowledge that.

however, i also personally try to be careful about spoilers for a fairly wide range of things, because the fact is, there is no way i can keep up with media as it comes out, and i know i'm not the only one. if nothing else, there are new generations of consumers being made all the time. so if it occurs to me (which is not always, but if it does) i'll try to structure things such that if a person is acting passively, they will know that they discussion exists but also have the option of avoiding it -- that is, so that it takes an active action to get to the discussion. it's not my responsibility, but i do think it's a nice thing to do, so i do it when i remember and when it's not too inconvenient. i don't agonize over it, and i don't feel that others have the responsibility to either. but i also don't mind if someone reminds me to do it, as long as they do it in a nice, non-confrontational way.

as for time frame... hmm. i'd say i actively avoid giving spoilers without warning for a movie roughly... while it's still in theatres definitely, and maybe for a while after that to give people the chance to rent it, and probably until after the applicable academy awards. as for TV, well... i guess my set of friends is such that most people just don't keep up with any of the same shows, so everyone's watching things on DVDs at different rates and such. so there's usually a conversation about how far along everyone is before getting into discussion. i don't seem to really have a feeling about general guidelines for TV.
As I told you in the previous post, I did edit it to indicate the spoilers that might be inherent in the discussion. I think that might be how I'll try to do things more in the future; I tend to reserve cut-tags for length.

(By the way, I hope you realize that I was in no way picking on you; this is a question that has been bubbling away in the back of my head for a long time.)

As I noted in a reply above, a few weeks back AOL put a big spoiler for a TV show on their front page. In that case, there was no way that the consumer could have realized what they were doing, and I do think it was very unfair of them.

I know that when Nomi and I were catching up with Buffy and The X-Files, we tended to avoid message boards, but sometimes there was just no way to find out a plot point of some sort in advance. It's one of the hazards of the Internet... :-)
Ok, it is deleted. Sorry I forgot about your request.

I tend to feel spoilers should be protected, where it's not a big deal, at least until the show is no longer on the air, and for a reasonable time after that. Where reasonable is something over one year and less than 20, which I realize is unusefully vague, but it really depends on too many factors for me to codify.

For instance, I don't think it's very difficult to cut tag and say "spoilers for" and so I will do that for almost anything, including Victorian novels, on the theory that just because something is old doesn't mean it's not new to *someone*. And especially now that technology has turned TV more like books -- something you might encounter fresh at any time, rather than something you see at the same time as everyone else or not at all -- I should treat it that way.

On the other hand, certain things have become so widely known, culturally, that you pretty much have to be under a rock not to know them already, and that I want to use them as touchstones to talk about other things. If I decided to bother reviewing the Narnia movie, it would be a pain to have to put detailed spoiler warnings for LOTR *and* Harry Potter *and* every other thing I might compare/contrast in passing. At that point, I'll warn for any important plot twist spoilers, but not for general mention. My touchstone there is, was it supposed to be a surprise the first time you saw it, so that knowing might diminish the effect, or is it one of the many things where the point is not what happened but how?

Part of the question for me is, how *possible* is it for the person who does not want to be spoiled to avoid the spoiler? I would have no reasonable way of knowing, when loading my FL, that you were going to be discussing West Wing spoilers (which I don't want either, having only watched season one so far.) If people won't LJ cut, the only alternative is to stop reading their journals altogether, which seems a bit draconian for someone who only rarely posts spoilery content (at all, or in the fandoms I'm avoiding it for.) OTOH, if I go to the West Wing site, then it's really my problem, since I knew there would be current content and I'm not current.

There's also the factor of people in other countries, who may not be *able* to see shows until they come out on DVD in their region. LJ not being an exclusively USian phenomenon. I ran into this a lot with Buffy stuff when it was airing.

Generally, I think it can't hurt to air on the side of caution in clearly labeling stuff and giving folks a chance to opt in or out.
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