The Vultures have apparently been getting slammed by others in addition to yrs truly over their profligacy in spoiling shows, including in the headlines of their posts which are impossible to miss if you are scanning a list of items in a feedreader. Thus their rant today encouraging viewers to watch their shows when they're on, which would make for a world where spoilers won't matter (via).

Actually the Vultures say what they do is different. Spoiling is when you have knowledge of what's going to happen in a show (movie, book, whatevs) before its official release. What they do is just reporting on what happened. They say that television programs should be treated like sports events: once they've aired the first time, they're fair game. According to this logic, the determination of spoiler-ness is a matter of time rather than of the nature of information revealed. It's not spoiling once the info is out there officially, only before. I disagree and I'll say why in a minute. But first I want to reiterate what I said the last time these folks had me in a blogworthy lather. As ever, these people are really, really wrong. Moreover, their position is embarrassingly self-serving. But the point of writing about this again is greater than just to mark my outrage and warn you off their website. There are larger implications about contemporary popular culture and its modes of consumption.

Spoilers have no doubt been around as long as stories have, but it is the discourse of media fandom that has popularized the idea of the spoiler as a token of knowledge-power. The one with the spoiler has the potential to influence someone else's experience of a narrative. Thus the warning of a spoiler to come is a courtesy, a gesture of respect. The expectation of spoiler warnings in popular discourse is a matter of etiquette. It would only exist in a scenario in which knowledge is unevenly distributed, and it mitigates the effects of this distribution. In particular, those like me who prefer not to be spoiled like to be respectful of others, whatever their preferences.

This same etiquette extends into discussions of media that are not conventionally considered in terms of spoilers, such as literature and theater. By convention, book and play reviews are--like film and television reviews--careful about what they will reveal. It is a convention of criticism that discourse aimed at those who have not yet seen or read the text may rehearse expository passages, but that the details of the plot once a situation has been set up will be treated vaguely, by reference to their emotional dimensions (harrowing, poignant) or their thematic significance (ultimately life-affirming, a paean to love). This etiquette of vagueness and indirection marks a distinction some might make between reviewing and criticism, with the former functioning as evaluative consumer guidance and the latter being more in-depth and serious. I don't know that I would avoid calling reviewers critics (some would). But there is clearly a difference between the expectations of a newspaper or magazine review and those of, say, a scholarly article, one of which being that a scholarly article isn't careful not to spoil. Its reader is assumed to have read/seen the whole thing. Warning the reader of a spoiler ahead basically says, treat this as criticism, not as a review.

The question in relation to Vulture, though, has to do with television, which has until very recently been different from movies, plays, and books in its flow, its ephemerality. Now some kinds of TV are moving away from flow toward something more like publishing.* The Vultures want to change the etiquette so that television will be different from movies and books and plays even as television texts in some ways are becoming more similar to those forms experientially. The novelty of television spoilers is of course a product of technological convergence. Only once we have TV on DVD, On Demand, DVRs, iTunes, etc., is it necessary to assume that television viewing is like book reading or cinemagoing: basically asynchronous, different people doing it at different times. Technology has freed the viewer (well, some of us viewers, anyway) from the shackles of the broadcast schedule. But this isn't good for a culture blog because it traffics in talking up the latest thing. The reason to return to Vulture hour by hour, day by day, is to read about something fresh and new. Television is an ideal topic to blog about for this very reason: it's constantly offering up fresh meat, and on a regular basis (daily and weekly episodes). Vulture doesn't want to be constrained in its ability to cover this material.

The problem is that Vulture wants TV to stay the way it was, not the way it now is and the ways it is becoming. It would probably be better for commercial blogging--blogging that is trying to sell the largest desirable audience to advertisers--if TV would stay the way it was. This would also please the media industries, from whose ads culture blogs like Vulture would love to profit. The networks and cable outlets would prefer if everyone would stop TiVoing their shows, stop downloading them, stop streaming them, stop waiting for them to come out on video, and just fucking watch them when they're on, with all the ads, like everyone used to in the good old days. They're terrified of their analog dollars becoming digital cents. Nothing would please them more than a cultural shift back to watching TV when it's on. If it becomes ok to spoil shows as soon as they have aired, it might promote this anachronistic idea of the schedule regularizing our experience. (The commonality of interest with the TV biz also explains why Vulture opposes spoiling a show before it has aired.)

Ultimately the issue of what's ok to spoil will be decided by the community of media consumers, not by any particular party, and certainly not by the media industries (including the hype industry of which Vulture is part). It is a matter of etiquette, and no one can mandate etiquette. But I'm grateful to Vulture for making clear their position, and I think everyone should have a clear position so that people can know where to pay their attention. Those of us who hate spoilers will unsubscribe from blogs that don't respect us just as we avoid obnoxious people. And those who don't care may continue not to care, though they may suffer an exceptionally brutal hell in the great beyond find themselves losing the attention they crave.

*On this point, see Derek Kompare, "Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television," in Television & New Media.

Update 3/14:
Vulture responds.

Update 3/15: Jason blogs my encounter with Vulture, including some reflections on differences between writers for the popular press and media scholars.

And: Chuck thinks Jason might be onto something re power dynamics between journalists and profs.

Update 3/17
: Fimoculous sez "most people who work in online media have found themselves embracing at one point or another" the argument for spoilers offered by Vulture. He calls for more public debate of the sort we see in the comments thread of Vulture's response to me.

1 comment:

Shemah said...

Very well said. I too agree with your definition of a spoiler. Just because it's aired, doesn't make it fair game. I for one, hate spoilers, whether it comes to movies or books.

I loathe the people whose blog I stumble to and without any warning, I find out what I did NOT come to find out. I find it really disrespectful.

And get this, just today, one of my blog readers just decided to announce the results for American Idol on MY BLOG. Yes, on my cbox. How rude can you get? Spoiling it for my other readers who have the trust in my blog that there wouldn't be any spoilers (knowing full well how I feel about 'em).

It's their prerogative really. But not on my blog. And even if it was on their blog, out of consideration for some readers like us, just a "spoiler warning" ahead shouldn't be so difficult, right?