Sunday’s season finale of “Downton Abbey” concludes one of the most vexing episodes in spoiler alert history.  Because the series ended in the U.K. last Christmas and was released on DVD before the American broadcast, any attempt to read about the Crawleys, follow them on social media or even chat about them with friends became a minefield of unexploded plot twists.

This was not the case when “Upstairs Downstairs” aired on PBS in the ‘70s. Even though the series was broadcast in the U.K. well before the American.airing, no one in the U.S. learned ahead of time that Lady Marjorie had gone down with the Titanic or that Hazel had died from the Spanish flu.

Of course it’s digital technology that’s changed everything, dramatically increasing the information flow within and among borders. Thanks to our friends at Google, Facebook and Twitter, it really has become a small world after all.  In my own case, I learned prematurely about the unfortunate demise of two major “Downton” characters, one from Wikipedia and one from accidentally clicking through to a British newspaper. 



The problem is only going to get worse.  The New York Times’ Brian Stelter points out that Netrlix’s simultaneous release of all 13 episodes of its new series “House of Cards” creates a whole new set of spoiler problems, because when viewers are given the chance to set their own schedules they don’t watch at the same pace.  Some binge-watch in one day and other stretch it out over week or months. The increased use of DVRs and even DVD boxed sets also decreases the communal experience of television watching and creates additional spoiler opportunities.

Spoilers have been around forever.  In 1841, American readers stormed ships arriving from England carrying the last installment of Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop,” shouting “Is Nell dead?”  And in 1960, ads for “Psycho” warned there would be a “no late admissions” policy to spare plot revelations. Alfred Hitchcock himself warned departing audiences over a loudspeaker, "Don't give away the ending - it's the only one we have."

Television never used to be so obsessed with spoilers. For one thing, there wasn’t much to spoil.  Series didn’t have season-long narrative arcs. Each episode existed on its own, with little reference to what happened in the past or might happen in the future.  And when there was a potential surprise, the networks usually exploited it for promotional gain. First Lady Betty Ford’s appearance at the end of a “Mary Tyler Moore” episode was widely reported, thereby attracting more viewers.

But when “Dallas” producers contrived to have J.R. Ewing shot by an unknown assailant at the end of season three, the massive ratings that followed opened the industry’s eyes to the value of a surprise and the associated danger of spoilers.  Ever since then, TV creators have worked hard to keep plot details secret.  Heck, Matthew Weiner won’t even reveal the year in which the next season of “Mad Men” starts.

By why are we so furious about spoilers?  Why do we insist on not learning plot details?  We can enjoy a story even when we already know the ending.  Three of the best movies of 2012 –“Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” – were based on factual incidents in which the climax was not in doubt.  Going into these films, we all knew that the American hostages escaped from Iran, that the Constitution abolished slavery, and that Osama bin Laden eventually swam with the fishes.  Yet all three movies delivered immensely satisfying and suspenseful endings.  And anyone who’s ever rewatched a movie or TV show knows that the enjoyment can be even better when you’re not worrying about plot development.

Part of the answer goes to the essence of how we interact with narrative art.  If we’re fully engaged, we’re interacting with the story on multiple levels.  Both our minds and emotions are working overtime.  We’re trying to get to the essential truth of the story.  On one level, there’s the basic satisfaction of figuring out the plot – what just happened and what’s going to happen next? In a serious piece of art, we’re also trying to figure out what the creator is trying to say, what the deeper meaning is and how this relates to our own existence. 

To deny someone the ability to experience a work of art on its own terms, with the story laid out as the creator presents it, is to steal something essential. In my own case, because I knew that these two “Downton” characters were doomed, their fates loomed over every episode as I wondered if this were the week they would meet their demise.  In a way, my viewing was “spoiled.”

As children, we delight in stories with surprises.  Only an ogre would give away the ending of a fairy tale to a child. The same principle applies as we age.  After all, Merriam Webster defines “to spoil” as “to affect something in a way that makes it worse, less attractive, or less enjoyable.”  Exactly right; knowing the plot details too soon makes the story less attractive and less enjoyable.  Please keep your spoilers to yourself.

6 comments about "Spoil-Sport".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, February 19, 2013 at 4:45 p.m.

    Downton Abbey has made a major error in its authenticity if one of the cast actually died from accidentally clicking through to a British newspaper site.

  2. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media, February 19, 2013 at 5 p.m.

    I'm not all that certain about the lack of spoilers for 'Upstairs, Downstairs'. I distinctly remember coming into work at McCann-Erickson on the morning of the broadcast of the fateful episode dealing with the sinking of the Titanic to find an anonymous note on my desk that read, 'Lady Marjorie dies tonight.' All it took was to put together a few salient facts. The date on the show, Lady Marjorie being on the ship and the fact that the Titanic, you know, sank.

  3. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion, February 19, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.

    And of course we all heard on the West Coast that I Love Lucy had a boy before the actual show arrived from New York via kenescope recording.

  4. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, February 20, 2013 at 12:15 a.m.

    If we insist on avoiding spoilers, it will be one more instance of new technology giving us yet another reason to isolate ourselves from others. And Jonathan, I got a good chuckle out of that miswritten sentence you brought attention to. Send it to the New Yorker, they love those type of tortured sentences!

  5. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, February 20, 2013 at 5:25 p.m.

    Thanks Rob. I hope Gary as well took it just as the joke it was intended to be. My writing is nothing to...write home about.

  6. Gary Holmes from Gary Holmes Communications LLC, February 21, 2013 at 5:04 p.m.

    Jonathan, I was chagrined by the grammatical goof, especially since in my personal life I'd been complaining about the common mistakes of others. It's good to be taken down a peg. Also, I wish I had mentioned the issue of East vs. West Coast. With the rise of DVR, blogging and tweeting we all live under the challenges that West Coast viewers have long put up with.

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