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To Spoil or Not to Spoil? TV Critics Reveal Their Policies About That Shocking Event — IndieWire Survey

Spoiler alert! Nobody can agree on how or when it's OK to reveal that big twist or surprise.

Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington, "Game of Thrones"

Helen Sloan/HBO

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question:  What is your spoiler policy regarding a) When and how you think it’s OK to mention spoilery content to the public (social media? spoiler warnings? in headlines? is there a time limit?) and b) What are your personal feelings/threshold about getting spoiled on content on TV?

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

My general philosophy is to try to make it so people have to opt in for spoilers. i.e., I won’t put the spoiler in a headline, or a tweet, but if you click on the piece, it’s because you know I’m discussing something that’s already aired and you will find out who died, who kissed, etc. Everyone’s watching on their own schedules these days, and while it’s obnoxious for someone who’s six months or more behind on a show to demand that everyone discuss things according to their delayed pace, it also doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to exercise a bit more caution.

And I hate being spoiled on things. Being a visible recapper of “Game of Thrones” — and someone who has not read the books — meant that I was frequently spoiled on big and small things by a small but corrosive subset of that show’s audience. One guy kept creating new accounts to remind me of exactly how and when a certain character would die, often making his username things like @CHARACTERdiesatLOCATION and then tweeting, “How are ya?” at me. How things happen on shows is at least as important as what happens, but I still enjoy being surprised, and am usually unhappy when I get spoiled, either through my own carelessness (I once made the mistake of Googling a minor character in “The Pacific” before I’d finished watching, which quickly revealed the death and circumstances of said death of a major one), or through other people’s. So I try when I can to prevent readers from feeling the same way.

But not only is everyone on their own schedule, everyone has their own definition of what a spoiler is. Someone yelled at me for my photo choice in my “Jessica Jones” Season 2 recap piece because they felt it gave away a major twist of the season, even though I believe the only way to understand that picture’s meaning would be if you’d already watched the whole thing. I generally define spoilers the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography: I know it when I see it.

Marvel's Jessica Jones

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

I’m so glad you asked. I’ve expressed my feelings about spoilers here, but tl;dr: I welcome them. Tell me anything. Seriously. Anyone who knows me knows they don’t need to keep spoilers from me, even if they’re shows I don’t watch — I’ll just be here to listen to you as you work through your feelings. Spoilers do not ruin the enjoyment of a show or movie for me; I far more enjoy the process of getting to the “reveal” or “twist” than the actual “reveal” or “twist” itself. I’ve already read the spoilers for “Avengers: Infinity War.” Now, I am not a dick, so I would never intentionally spoil something for someone if they don’t want to be spoiled. As for spoilers in stories, I try not to lay it out directly in headlines, and I include spoiler warnings, but I believe anything is fair game for discussion after a show airs on both coasts. For scripted shows, I think you can get a couple days to “catch up” — and it’s not a spoiler by the time the next episode airs — but you can totally talk about who was eliminated on any reality show the next day, especially since many of them do press. If spoilers mean that much to you, that’s on you to make sure you don’t get spoiled. And if you do get spoiled, who cares? It’s a TV show. The world does not revolve around anyone’s viewing habits.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

For our site, we always preface any reviews or interviews that covers a series in detail with the spoiler forward warning, otherwise people moan. Answering your question, A) After a show has aired, it’s game on regarding “spoilery” content. During and before a show has aired, a different matter. Poor impulse control for some out there makes the Internet and specifically Twitter a no-go zone if you want absolutely no indications of what will occur on a show. Getting angry about it is like going to a water park and getting pissed off that someone splashed you. Now, cleverly alluding to and cryptically hinting about a key moment or series are entirely different matters, go for it.

And for B)… Personally, I am amazed there are people out there who haven’t figured out the Internet’s entertainment section is rife with recountings, analysis, critique and suppositions of what happened on any given show – so if you truly want to be in the dark about every aspect of a series that has aired (which is completely fair game to discuss in my opinion) just don’t go looking for any insight on the Internet until you’ve had your chance to watch. My personal feelings are that reading recaps of scripted shows are a boondoggle of precious time and proper reviews only interest me after I have seen the show myself.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

In general, I try to be as cautious as possible when it comes to spoilers (though of course pobody’s nerfect) — mostly because I feel awful any time I spoil someone by accident. Twenty-four hours at the least feels like a basic window, maybe a week solid for anything forward facing, though it’s become tougher and tougher to police as more and more people choose to binge and watch shows at their own paces.

As for getting spoiled, 99 percent of time it’s a bummer if I’m a fan of the show. Every once in a while, though, there’s a 1 percent instance where I’m glad of the spoiler — like most recently with “Into the Badlands,” where I needed to catch up a few episodes of Season 2 still, but got a major twist of the Season 2 finale ruined for me by the press materials for Season 3. However, knowing that twist helped me prepare mentally for it (because it was a doozy) — don’t know how I would have reacted to that moment, had I not been ready for it to come.

Danny Wu

AMC

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

I just try not to ever put spoilers in headlines or in tweets. If it’s treated as a surprise in the show, I’m not going to come out and say it in a visible way (and I also won’t discuss it in a pre-premiere review). That being said, I don’t always write my own headlines and I acknowledge that Search Engine Optimization sometimes demands being a bit less oblique than my own instinct would tell me to be. It’s tough. You want people who watch the stuff to know what the story is about, because otherwise they probably won’t read it, but you don’t want it to give up the farm to somebody who hasn’t watched the stuff. [An exception/variation would be when I used to do reality TV exit interviews. I never called them “elimination” interviews or anything, but the stories had no purpose if you didn’t put the name of the eliminated contestant in the headline. So… those were invariably spoiler-y. However, on Twitter, I always just tweeted it without the contestant’s name in the tweet.] For me personally? I don’t like getting spoiled and I get annoyed when somebody on the East Coast spoils something on Twitter for no reason and I get REALLY annoyed with a publicist sends out a “Do Not Spoil” weeks ahead of premiere that spoils stuff, BUT my policy is always that a twist should work even if you know it’s coming. If it only works because you didn’t see it coming, it’s badly constructed and poorly motivated.

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

OK, first off, I hate how spoilers have been weaponized on social media. As an East Coaster, I try my damnedest to tweet during shows with the least-specific content so as to not ruin it for anyone outside of my time zone. But then folks or outlets on the West Coast who get the early feed go and fucking tweet out such detailed information that it’s all spoiled, usually just so they seem like they’re getting it out there first. Those people should be put on a rack.

As for my time-limit policy, like I said, at the time of air, I try to go vague but fun and engage folks who are watching along without including things like “I can’t believe Bernard was a Host all along!” or “They killed Ralph Dibney and Midge in the same week?!” Post-airing, I am fine with discussing details the morning after because by then, most post-mortems, recaps and think pieces have been posted…often by sites that run headlines that spoil things in their links anyway. And most definitely, it is safe to talk about things before the next episode airs. If someone replies that they’re behind on “Gotham” after I tweet out that the Nygma-Lee coupling is working for me, that’s on them. Movies get at least a full week on lockdown because not everyone goes on opening weekend but really, if you ever feel the need to tell people that [blank] dies in “A Quiet Place,” you can go to hell every day. Along with anyone who gets advance access to a screener and ruins it before the episode is even scheduled. I have recently fallen in with the “Riverdale” fandom’s requests for info from press screeners and all I will give are one-word hints, emojis and teases that can be read in multiple ways. The fun is in the watching, right?

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

a) Please oh please, no spoilers in headlines. Though people know to stay off social media, it’s tough for a lot of people to do and it’s not difficult to craft a headline without revealing major plot points. For broadcast shows, I think it’s fine to talk about big plot points the same night with appropriate “spoiler alert” warnings at the top of the post. For streaming shows, all bets are off because so many people like to binge series the first weekend they drop. Personally, I rarely binge an entire series over a weekend, so I know if I read about a show, I’ll probably be spoiled about a plot point or two.

b) I don’t get upset if I see a spoiler before I watch a show because if I like a show, I still want to watch and see how they tell the story. I don’t seek out spoilers but if I run across one in my social feeds, I don’t really care.

Westworld Bernard Drone Host HBO

“Westworld”

HBO

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

This is an impossible question to answer. If you spoil something in a headline, you’ve gone too far. But if you’re still dancing around that [spoiler] [spoilered] [spoiler] in Season 2 of “Lost” then you need to loosen up. The correct answer is somewhere in the blurry, blubbery middle. Anyone who tries to put a specific timeframe on when it’s OK to openly talk spoilers is fooling themselves; it’s unenforceable. That’s like asking YouTube commenters to be nice. You’re on your own to protect yourself from spoilers, and you never know when they’ll come at you because there’s no standard. It’s every person for themselves out there, dude. Stay vigilant and stay on top of your shows. It takes work, but it’s worth it.

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

Ohhhh boy. Spoilers. My mortal enemy. But they were also my former addiction, so I get it. When I was a kid, I spoiled myself to a ridiculous degree on “X-Files” and even “Friends.” Now, it’s a tough line, because knowing more absolutely helps plan coverage…but it does take away from the experience. I love the moments that genuinely blindside you (I will never forget bolting up at “Fringe”‘s first season finale and literally lunging for my laptop, so I could write up a piece on it); losing that sucks as a television fan. But it’s also part of the job, so I suck it up.

That being said, I also feel responsible to not ruin the experience of shows I cover for those fans. I love teasing, but never ruining, what’s going to happen. I’m all for vague headlines, spoiler alert in posts, whatever can be done to avoid accidentally ruining an episode or twist for someone else. If I wasn’t writing about TV, I’d be reading everything I could about the shows I love, so I try to think about what lines I wouldn’t want crossed for that alt-me.

However, social media makes things difficult. If it’s a show I love, I know I can’t be on Twitter before the episode airs on the West Coast — between people sharing their reactions or the official account live-tweeting, it’s a minefield. I try to be as vague as possible week-of, because with a zillion shows on the air, it’s getting more and more difficult for people to view things immediately. That being said, I’m insanely paranoid talking about old things I’m watching for the first time on social media, because SO OFTEN people will reply to newbies with spoilers. Let’s just be kind/respectful to each other, OK?

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

Ultimately it has to come down to the simple fact that if something has aired to the public (so not something from a screener, obviously), then it’s ok to talk about.

HOWEVER … there are a lot of caveats to that. Not everyone watches TV at the same pace, and not everyone can watch things live. You can tell people to stay off of social media if they don’t want to find out something that happened, but also, be polite and consider your social media followers. If you really want to talk about it, cloak yourself in a mutable hashtag. Don’t spoil things in headlines, especially for major series. Ask someone if they’re caught up before launching into the details of the latest episode.

So maybe there’s not a rule to spoilers exactly, but there’s certainly an etiquette. There’s also definitely a spoiler statute of limitations, which usually comes down to one outlet posting a full spoiler headline, pissing everyone off, and clearing the way for everyone else to also post about it openly.

It’s my job to stay informed on all things TV, yet it’s also impossible for me to watch every TV show the night it has aired (or sometimes even days or weeks after). Spoilers happen, I accept it. I just try to make it a priority to stay current on shows where I would actually be upset if I learned about a plot point before I was able to watch it happen.

Sandra Oh and David Haig, "Killing Eve"

Sandra Oh and David Haig, “Killing Eve”

BBC AMERICA

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

I have a complicated relationship with spoilers that ultimately depends on the medium. I tend to be more strict when it comes to movie spoilers, because not everyone has the option of seeing a film at the exact same time. Plus, movies are contained storytelling units and this means there are fewer opportunities to pull off the Big Moments. When I saw “The Force Awakens” a few weeks after it opened a few years ago, my brother leaned over just as the lights went down in the theater and whispered “Han dies” in my ear. After decades of this kind of emotional abuse, I punched him in the chest as hard as I could, which unfortunately wasn’t very hard because I was sitting next to him. My brother can be kind of a jerk. But if we’d been watching a TV show, I wouldn’t have had the same reaction because TV spoilers don’t usually carry the same weight as movie spoilers. There are very few instances in which being spoiled for something on TV would ruin my enjoyment of it. Now, if shocking twists are built into the fabric of a show the way they are on “Jane the Virgin,” I don’t want to know anything in advance that might jeopardize that surprise. If a show relies on building tension — think something like the later seasons of “Breaking Bad” — I don’t want to know what happens because I might not be in the intended emotional state. Everything else is fair game though, especially if it’s the morning after a TV show has aired.

As someone who ran a TV website’s social media accounts for three years, I’ve dealt with my fair share of (stupid) complaints about spoilers. I don’t think anyone should go out of their way to spoil a major plot twist or character death, especially the night of, but I also think if someone is on social media or a TV website after an episode airs, they need to accept they might be spoiled. It’s not on journalists or critics or company Twitter accounts or random strangers on the internet to protect someone else from spoilers. If we have to protect them 24 hours later they’ll want us to protect them months later. Someone recently yelled at me on Twitter for “spoiling” that Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo is a villain and that his beautiful face gets cut to pieces at the end of “The Punisher.” First of all, read a comic book or a Wikipedia page, bro. Second of all, this was five months after the show had aired. It’s not my fault you didn’t watch the show when the rest of the world watched the show. You knew the risks, angry internet guy! Basically: TV spoilers are fine, but don’t purposefully spoil Han Solo’s death for your little sister.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

In general, I try not to put majorly spoiler-y stuff in headlines or on social media for a period of months, if not years. Like I would still feel a little weird spoiling some of the big twists from the end of “The Last Jedi,” even though conservatively everybody has seen that movie at this point. I guess it’s just polite, even if I do feel like from every moment the movie opens, or the TV show airs, the responsibility of those who haven’t seen it to not be mad if they’re accidentally spoiled increases exponentially. If I told you Darth Vader was Luke’s dad two days before “Empire Strikes Back” opened, yeah, I’m an asshole. If you’re mad that I just said it in this sentence, well…. I mean…

Also, I don’t care about being spoiled. When I was a wee copy editor, at my first real job, I read an AP piece that spoiled a really big “Lost” twist (it was something Michael did in the Hatch), and after I processed my irritation at being spoiled, I realized that I was really excited to see the moment play out. Knowing what was coming made it that much more exciting! I get that I’m a geek for structural stuff, and that not everybody else is, but if you consume media primarily on the level of plot, you’re missing out on a lot of other things. I don’t actively seek out spoilers, but in my line of work, it’s all but impossible to avoid them entirely. Come on in, spoilerphobes! The water’s fine!

Matthew Fox, “Lost”

ABC

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Spoilers should be relegated to a safe space at all times (not in headlines or social media), unless they’ve reached a saturation point in the public eye. So spoiling the fact that Darth Vader is Luke’s father is fine circa 2018, but putting the ending of “The Last Jedi” in a tweet is not. Even in this example, I recognize my protective nature toward spoilers is greater than others — as someone who never, ever, ever wants to be spoiled — but that’s the audience you have to write for; anyone with a lower threshold isn’t at risk, so you have to protect the ones who are.

And that brings me to the more difficult question: What is a spoiler? I like Alan’s attitude of “you know it when you see it,” but I struggle with specific designations. Like all TV fans, critics want to talk about exciting moments from the shows they see, and unless you’re posting an article after it airs (and loading it up with proper spoiler warnings), you’ve got to decide what’s OK to highlight (so people get excited about the show you’re praising) and what’s something they need to see for themselves, untainted by an early tip-off. Comedies often trip me up: Is that scene in “Veep” going to be as funny for viewers if I mention it in my review? Will people be excited enough about the new season of “Archer” if all my descriptions of its best aspects are vague? Finding that balance is key, but it’s rarely easy.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Killing Eve” (eight votes)

Other contenders: “The Americans” (two votes), “Superstore,” “The Terror,” “Westworld” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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