Saturday, January 17, 2009

Spoiler Warnings

In my Battlestar Galactica/L-Word post, I used plot information from the season finale of the third season of Battlestar Galactica in the text. This information was crucial for the point I was making in the post. Loyal reader 2fs took me to task for not including a Spoiler Warning. I was astounded that he thought it needed one. The season three finale aired in the US on March 5, 2007 and in the UK on May 1, 2007. Moreover, the opening sequence of every Season 4.0 episode (which aired in the spring of last year and was issued on DVD before Christmas) revealed this point. If someone didn't know about it, it wasn't for lack of opportunity.

I've added a spoiler warning to the post, but you can't unring a bell, so I apologize. Over the years I have wondered what is the mandatory spoiler warning time for a movie or TV show. In real life, I frequently ask people if it is okay or not to reveal a storyline when we are discussing something. With the situation reversed, I usually wave off spoiler rights unless I have concrete imminent plans to see the work in question.

With box sets and DVRs, the window of opportunity to see something is very elastic. I frequently DVR stuff and watch it in batches. I have the entire season so far of Heroes recorded and I may never get to it. Every commercial for the show includes elements that would count as a spoiler to me, but that isn't NBC's fault. It would be unreasonable for me to expect the entire world to stay silent because I'm too busy to watch it.

Spoilers are a long and venerable tradition. National Lampoon used to carry a column called "Spoilers" that had one sentence summaries of the endings of movies in current release. I have no idea how many movies have been "spoiled" for me by Mad Magazine. You can't parody something without revealing the plot. Stephen King is quoted in Wikipedia as saying there is no such thing as a spoiler, the work should stand or fail even if you know the ending. Still, some sensitivity should be exercised and a certain blackout period should be honored.

My worst fail in this regard was on the opening day of Star Trek II: The One Where Spock Dies. It had been widely reported in the general press that Spock died and how controversial that was. The newspaper review that morning had let on that Spock died. As we were walking out of the theater there was a huge line of people there to see the next show. A complete stranger asked me how it was. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Spock dies." People all around us sighed crestfallen. I had done a Very Bad Thing by not recognizing that others weren't as media-aware as I was and didn't know that Spock dies in the movie they were about to see.

Ooops! The previous paragraph should have had a spoiler warning. Otherwise people might learn that Spock died.

My personal rule of thumb for spoilers is one month for movies and one week for television shows but even that is a little flexible. The bigger the surprise the longer it should be kept secret. In reverse, the more popular the event, the less caution is required. Almost by definition, the result of a massive cliffhanger can't be considered a spoiler after it has aired. Who wasn't discussing Who Shot JR the very next day?

Since opinions vary, I have started a poll to see if I am alone in this stance.

Now that that is over, read no further if you don't want have other items spoiled for you.


***spoiler space***

***spoiler space***

Spoilers start here:
  • The final cylon is Tom Zarek's brother Muffit, played by Dirk Benedict.
  • The kid is really a ghost and Bruce Willis was the one who killed him.
  • Rosebud was Charles Foster Kane's nickname for his penis.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi is really Luke's dad. There are a few things Queen Padmé Amidala hid from Anakin.
  • The island disappeared because Gilligan turned the wheel on the hatch after the Skipper told him not to.
BlatantSpoilerWhoring™: Spoil something for me.


2fs said...

I'd have to say that one month for movies is ridiculously short - that timeframe assumes everyone sees movies early in their original run ("early" for successful movies, anyway). Half the time, even if I do manage to get to a theater to see a movie, I'd rather wait a month till the crowds die down.

But as to your larger point, you're correct: it doesn't actually ruin a good one gets there is more important than where the there is. But it's not hard to talk around spoiler points in such a way that those who have seen it will know what you're talking about, while those who have not won't.

Actually, this raises a larger point: the timeframe you mention makes an assumption that movies, tv shows, etc., are essentially news - which, like bread, is best consumed fresh, but becomes rather stale afterwards. That's certainly the way they're presented in most media, and certainly aligns with what studios and promoters would like: a huge opening crowd can ensure a profit...even if no one actually likes the thing. (How many movies open big, only to tail off in the next few weeks, only to be forgotten within a year?) And in fact, that's part of the big buzz strategy: get everyone to pays their moneys before word gets out that the (BSG does not suck - I'm talking about the larger environment in which the attitude of "see it new!" prevails.) But if a movie's good now, shouldn't it be good next year, two years from now, five years, ten, fifteen? And not everyone can see it now...and with the availability and convenience of DVDs and the like, many people I know are, say, watching the complete run of a TV series from 1967, in order. It is, as the old slogan goes, new for them.

I personally am content to talk around spoilers for the most part, even if it's for the identity of "Rosebud," say...because how do I know that someone just hasn't gotten around to seeing Citizen Kane yet, and my sloppy revelation that it refers to William Randolph Hearst's pet name for his lover's genitalia (that's not in the movie, though) might ruin it for someone?

Anonymous said...

As a side note, re: the 6th Sense. That movie came out when my father and step-mother were living in Belgium for my dad's work. They went to see it because the newspaper said it would be subtitled, but when they got there it was dubbed in French (which my stepmother speaks but my dad doesn't) and decided to stay anyway. My dad says that he could tell very early on that....


...Bruce Willis was dead, just by watching people's body language and noticing that nobody but Haley Joel Osmet (sp?) was interacting with him. He said that when you don't have the dialogue to distract you, it's actually pretty obvious.


Mooselet said...

I am a spoiler whore, so it doesn't bother me 99% of the time. Although I was a little cranky when my kids spoiled the ending of the 6th Harry Potter book it certainly didn't ruin the book for me.

How much time? I went with until the next season of a current show starts, or the theatrical run ends. I won't deliberately spoil something for someone, but after that amount of time elapses I'm less careful.

Spoil something for you? Well, okay...


The meaning of life is 42.

Anonymous said...

So what's the allowed spoiler time for books?

A recent issue of Entertainment Weekly spoiled some of the later Harry Potter books in an article about the latest upcoming movie. There was no spoiler warning. In the latest issue, someone wrote in and complained, and I have to say that I agreed with him. Although I read the first 3 or 4 HP books, I haven't been keeping up with them since, and decided I was just going to follow the movies. I was shocked when they revealed a couple of major plot points for the later books.

The hazards of following a TV show on DVD (or a book by watching the movies) is that spoilers often do become part of the popular culture landscape before you can experience them in their natural environment. I guess that's one reason I still try to watch shows more-or-less live (or recently DVRed). I wasn't around for the season premiere of BSG last night, but I watched it first thing in the morning, so I could start reading about it online and not have it spoiled.

Spoil something for you: Leland Palmer killed his daughter Laura. But he was possessed by Bob or something. Never quite understood that whole thing.

yellojkt said...

I remember that EW article and the kerfuffle it caused. There were always be a new generation of readers and viewers. Perhaps its best just not to discuss plot details in too much detail.

I think waiting for the DVD of a series is a great way to watch a show (especially those on pay cable) but those people have to expect some spoilage as part of that bargain.

So far I like mooselet's spoiler best.

Anonymous said...

That whole Spock thing was ridiculous. EVERYBODY knew Spock was going to die. First Nimoy didn't even want to do the film (which is why he shows up later than everyone else), then he made it clear that he wanted to be sure that he would never have to play Spock again. Of course, then he changed his mind and they had to find a way to unkill him.

BTW, the new polling software sucks. I'd much rather see the results here than have to click a button to open a new tab/window. Gotta get that fixed before this year's CCCC(CC?).

Spoiler: Spock's consciousness is implanted in McCoy's head.

yellojkt said...

Exactly, d-x. It was the worst kept movie ending ever.

And I will go back to the older polling site. This one is very easy but not very flexible. The old one's problem is that it has a bad lag until the results are updated.

Anonymous said...

Try I've seen a couple of places use it and seems OK. As far as I can tell, the results are real time. You can even set up polls allowing for more than one answer by people.

Spoilers: It was Earth all along. (Maniacs! We blew it up!)

Soylent Green is people.

Anonymous said...

As I recall, the producers actually tried to defuse the whole "Spock dies" thing with the opening Kobayashi Maru scene. This way the audience would see him "die", it would be revealed to be a training exercise, and we could all just move past it. Then, when Spock really did die, the audience would still be surprised. Not that it worked.

For what it's worth, Television Without Pity has a spoiler rule of "as soon as it's aired on the East Coast in the USA, all bets are off." It doesn't help for films or books, but it's a starting point.

Spoiler: Eve eats the apple, Adam eats the apple, God tells them both to get the hell out.

Sue T. said...

This has been a topic of discussion on San Francisco Chronicle TV writer Tim Goodman's blog/podcast. He says for currently airing TV shows, the spoiler period should be a week. Obviously if you're planning on watching something on DVD, you should either avoid all references to a show, or have a more flexible attitude. I mean, I know (SPOILER ALERT) that Omar gets killed in the last season of "The Wire," even though I've never watched "The Wire," and may still watch it someday. But I'm still happy that I was able to see that "Star Wars" movie where you find out "Luuuuuke, I am your father" without knowing it first. Those were very different days, with a much less crowded media landscape.

2fs said...

Context is important: I mean, a site like TWP whose whole Detroit Raisin (translated from the French) is to recap TV shows snarkily pretty obviously is going to give away endings, plot points, etc. But that's different from either unsolicited blurt (like the asshole in the parking lot who exited that Star Wars movie by yelling "Dorothy Waders is Laura's bather!" - that was a spoiler-warned transformation of the correct phrase) or, admittedly, something like yellojkt's BSG/L-Word entry - which, really, someone not wanting the previous season's BSG spoiled should not have read. (That's why I didn't raise a huge stink, just made a little comment...if he'd spoiled the most recent episode, that would have been pretty egregious.)

Spoil something...?

Ah. I know: the Supreme Court chose Bush over Gore in 2000.