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Spoiled Rotten

08.02.12 | 2 Comments


CATEGORIES storytelling, transmedia

As I write this blog post, I have a play in rehearsal that features a few eminently spoil-able plot points.  It’s hard to explain without, you know, spoiling anything for people, but we can’t even use certain characters’ names in program or in publicizing the show. It’s been a fun challenge, but not without a little bit of anxiety. The other day, one of the actors shared a bit of information she shouldn’t have with a small crowd of people, and my heart skipped a beat. The theater’s website inadvertently mentioned something it shouldn’t have, too, for about eight hours, until I sent a panicked email and they quickly took down the spoiler. You can start to see why Hollywood types get all crazy about this stuff.

And yet… there’s only SO much control one can have, right? After the show’s open, and people have seen it, they’re GOING to start talking about it with other people. I can probably reasonably trust, say, the critics from the Washington Post to not say anything they shouldn’t, but how about Joe and Jane Theatergoer (love those two, BTW), who might tweet a spoiler or post one on Facebook five seconds after the show’s over. Short of some legally-binding contract with significant incentives for silence, however, all we have to rely on is the “do unto others” social contract… which we’re all allowed to break, it now seems, simply by announcing “SPOILER ALERT” before we do.

Part of what makes theater so subject to spoil is that the story is very clearly intended to be told in a specific time and place. (Though live-streaming is probably going to change that as it gets more sophisticated.) Revealing plot points elsewhere and elsewhen diminishes the effectiveness of the art. It breaks it, effectively.

All of the agony over the way in which the Olympics are being broadcast by NBC, I think, seems to stem from the fact that the “story” of the games doesn’t really have a specific time and place in which we all agree it needs to be told. Some of us would prefer to hear the news via Twitter. Some would like to check the scores on sports news sites. Some would prefer to wait for the packaged presentations NBC is delivering every evening.

At the same time, the various storytellers have different preferences, too. Journalists want to beat each other the sharing of news; the CNN app on my Droid has been buzzing all day long since the Olympics started. Meanwhile, NBC—which paid close to $2 billion for the rights to televise the games (and which will make a hefty profit on doing so, to be sure—would rather CNN just keep its little mouth shut. Then again, NBC has provided a live online stream of the games as well, so they seem to want to have their golden-ringed cake and eat it, too.

All of which leads me to suggest that perhaps we ought to renegotiate the social contracts around spoiling. It used to be that the onus was entirely on the one who might spoil to protect any privileged story information he or she might possess. Now, as stories begin to be told more asynchronously, I think we are beginning to live in a world in which those of us who wait to hear a story must accept that we’re taking on more of a risk of having that story accidentally spoiled. It’s on us, at least somewhat. More so than ever, at the very least.

And I also think we can begin to forgive those storytellers who are more geared toward instant delivery of the news. We might be ready, in other words, for “SPOILER ALERT” to be removed from the tweets and webpages of our news organizations. You don’t want to know who won the 200M freestyle? Unfollow CNN; don’t visit ESPN.com. Let them do their job, which is to report as quickly and accurately as they can what some of us want to hear.

And let’s no longer accuse those folks of “ruining” the stories that NBC is telling every evening. Those packaged, melodramatic, heavily edited narratives are completely different than the stripped-down fact-delivery mechanisms you get from news sources. Honestly, you can actually enjoy them BOTH. You can, if you like, already know who won the race by following the results on Twitter or Facebook and STILL be moved by seeing it on television that night. We call that transmedia storytelling. You should try it sometime. It’s fun!

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  • Scott

    The analogy between theater-goers and coverage of the Olympics is not entirely accurate, I think. I agree that, with our ever-growing culture of instantaneous social media, the responsibility should lie with the potential-spoilee for such events as the Olympics and other sports. The media are merely reporting, as you say, “as quickly and accurately as they can” for  a one-time event. Yes you can record it and watch it later, but anyone who does this is aware that they are watching something that is past, that there is a disconnect.

    Theatre is of a different nature. The performances are repeated (though never exactly the same) for each audience to experience in the moment. There is an expected element of immediacy and newness that is refreshed each performance. Critics and others covering these performances are doing so with the intention not just to inform, but to recommend. They are expecting their readers to go out and partake in (or avoid) the same experience they did and, as a result, have a responsibility to not reveal any information that would lessen a patron’s experience (if they’re any good).

     No one expects to read about the men’s 100m butterfly and NOT find out who took gold (spoiler alert: it was Phelps). Conversely, no one read a review of The Dark Knight Rises to find out if Batman dies (not telling). The expectations between the two types of coverage have similarities, but are, ultimately, vastly different. Each serves its purpose when done well, but this standard should be held high, and is deceptively difficult to achieve.

  • I feel for you Gwydion. Had a play produced about 10 years ago in which a key plot point was a real shocker. I never thought for one minute that critics would give it away in reviews, but they did, and more than one of them did. I just think the enjoyment of the play was considerably reduced if you knew what was coming in act two. It’s frustrating but there’s nothing you can do about it.


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