'Downton Abbey' and the spoiler problem

A scene from the popular television series, "Downton Abbey."

Have you set your TiVo to catch last night's "Downton Abbey" premiere? The question: can you catch up with Lord Grantham and Lady Mary and remain spoiler-free?

A few weeks ago, I inadvertently learned a major plot point on "Downton Abbey," and now I'm a living in a prison of my own making-a woman alone. My friends act like I've got a communicable disease. My husband doesn't trust his own soul mate to keep her mouth shut. As if I'd say anything!

In Spoiler Alert Nation, there's no greater social infraction than revealing whether Brody on "Homeland" is a terrorist, or who got eliminated on "The Voice," or, in my case, what happened to a certain member of Lord Grantham's family.

The spoiler problem has been building for years, but our ever-escalating ability to instantly share everything we know means that what happens on TV these days, really doesn't stay on TV. Spoilers waft in through the air itself, via Twitter or Facebook, email or text. To be behind in a popular series even by 10 minutes is to live in a booby-trapped world.

While there's no greater treat than the TV binge - watching multiple seasons of "Breaking Bad" or "Game of Thrones" in one lost weekend - we're suffering from a perfect storm of TV-related stress. The growing backlog of must-watch series has combined with greater flexibility of when and how we watch, and more media outlets on which to learn what we can't unlearn.

At this point, millions of Americans are at risk for spoilers. For some dramas, half the audience delays viewing. No one's better positioned to see all this procrastination than Nielsen, the TV ratings company. In 2008, the firm began counting shows watched up to three days later in its ratings. In 2011, the folks making the programs began lobbying advertisers to look at viewership numbers a whole week later.
 
But even a week may be too short, as there's even growing interest to have shows watched years later count toward commercial audiences numbers. Just as long as current commercials are inserted into older airings.
 
But here's the main issue: as a growing number of people not only watch shows that originally aired when George W. Bush was president, but become enraged at those who "reveal" their endings, we're faced with a newly urgent question: What's the spoiler statute of limitations? "Citizen Kane"?

About the author

Beth Teitell writes for the Boston Globe. Her most recent book is called "Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth."

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