If you’ve spent any time online in the past week or so, you’ve been inundated by spoilers. Perhaps not actual spoilers — information that would take the tingling shock out of who won the women’s gymnastics all-around (Gabby Douglas) or who put Ryan Lochte’s grill in his mouth (Piers Morgan), but talk about spoilers.
Spoilers are not a new issue — that guy has no doubt existed since telling someone who really clubbed Abel in the shocking twist ending you didn’t see coming. But the concept that information wants to be free is very much of the times, the (spoiler alert) Information Age. Movie trailers show more and more of film plots and book trailers now bring that sort of spoiler-sense to the written word. Publicists have tried to staunch the tide by embargoing reviews until the day a movie opens but even The New Yorker feels free to flaut that convention. A whole new literary form, the recap, has evolved to meet the needs of people who don’t just want to watch television, they want to read the plot, often before they see the show.
So let’s openly admit something born out by the numbers: we love spoilers. We might love to hate them, but we also just love them. Beyond the pleasure of knowledge itself, spoilers lend focus to what can be an overwhelming amount of information — they can help you figure out what to siphon off from the Olympics fire hose or which new TV series sounds especially enticing. The term “spoiler” itself is wrong, as it would indicate that people who know the result, either by chance or choice, would be less interested in the event. The evidence against this is strong: Last week, for instance, NBC released a poll that showed that viewership of its primetime Olympic events actually increased if people had learned the result. Savvy musicians have long leaked their music out early to build up an audience. Kanye West put out advance tracks from his last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, for months before the record was available for sale: It ended up being one of the few blockbuster records of 2011, selling over a million copies. A glance at the Twitter accounts of a number of primetime TV shows demonstrates that the creators and trade magazines think marking content as “spoilers” is a boon to their audiences. Otherwise, why would they do it so much? It’s like marking content “NSFW.” It makes people want to click, to spoil themselves.
Still, anti-spoiler rage is rampant. Before the Aurora shooting, the hysteria around The Dark Knight Rises prompted fans to go to uncanny lengths to not know plot points — information revealed in the ubiquitous trailers, no less. At the same time, the studio had stoked the fans’ ardor for months by feeding blogs information that would, in theory, kill the shock. Did that actually make people less interested in the movie? Of course not. The Dark Knight Rises has already gobbled up almost $400 million at the box office.
Not every media entity seems to grasp that contradiction, though. As a fan of The Bachelor franchise, I have been following the lawsuit against Reality Steve, a popular Bachelor blogger, with horror for the better part of this year.
For the uninitiated, Reality Steve is a Texas man with an often juvenile sense of humor who posts twice weekly about reality TV, with a special focus on the Bachelor/Bachelorette. In recent years, he has become especially well-sourced and this winter, he managed to report who floppy-haired winemaker Ben Flajnik picked (the evil Courtney) before the show even aired. In retaliation, NZK Productions, the company behind the show, sued Steve in federal court for “tortious interference” — the notion that what he did interfered with their commerce. As the Hollywood Reporter pointed out, this was a rather novel use of the legal concept, although such virtuous actors as a tobacco company accused CBS News of interference when they aired the interviewer with whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (the basis for Russell Crowe’s The Insider.)
That case was thrown out, but Reality Steve faced longer odds. The pressure to settle, he wrote on his blog, was intense, as he was a lone blogger and NZK had deep pockets. The case files (dug up by a Reality Steve defender, who called the whole thing “extortion”) didn’t necessarily paint a lovely picture of Steve. He had offered money to two unnamed contestants in order to confirm on-set rumors, promising that talking to him would be “the easiest money you’ve ever made.” However, thanks to the $5 million penalty written into the show’s contracts for revealing secrets, these contestants instead ratted Steve out to producers.
Happily for Steve fans, he announced in June that he and the producers had agreed on a settlement — he could keep spoiling so long as he didn’t initiate contact with contestants. Even after that, the series’ creator, Mike Fleiss, still took a sadly limited view of the role of spoilers in the contemporary entertainment experience. Just a few weeks ago, he was retweeting people who condemned Reality Steve and his ilk. This is incredibly short-sighted. The people obsessed enough to read (and care about) the outcomes of a reality series are not going to actually stop watching because they know (or think they know) the result. Ratings for the recent season finale of The Bachelorette, by the way, were the best summer numbers that ABC has seen in two years for any show.
When I was watching the women’s gymnastics all-around competition last week, I did so knowing full well that Gabby Douglas had won. Hell, I knew the whole order of events: who won what, and the agony of Aly Raisman’s fourth-place finish. But with that kind of suspense out of the way, I could focus on the plight of the Russians. Those girls, with their overdone eye makeup and big male coaches, suddenly seemed more like tragic figures than the villains NBC seemed to want to create. Viktoria Komova’s floor routine was exquisite but I waited, tense, for her to react to the inevitable score. Had I been so focused on the Americans, I might have missed Aliya Mustafina shrugging off her coach after the disastrous balance beam —some actual emotion! Enough with the canned smiles and lame post-game interviews. And finally, even though I was 100 percent sure that Douglas would be beaming at the end, I still teared up as her family waited for the results. Nothing could have spoiled that.
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