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The art of keeping — or spoiling — a TV secret

Eliza Mills May 22, 2015
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The art of keeping — or spoiling — a TV secret

Eliza Mills May 22, 2015
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We’ve all been there: you fall behind on a TV show, or you’re late to catch on to a new streaming series. Someone mentions a plot twist, a character death, or maybe you just checked Twitter in the three hours between the time a finale airs on the East and West Coasts. Suddenly, it’s ruined. Your experience has been spoiled.

In a time of media overload, it’s hard to avoid spoilers. It can be equally hard to avoid spoiling things for someone else. It’s enough of a cultural phenomenon that there are apps and plug-ins created to help people avoid leaks. Google even has patented a spoiler-prevention tool.

But spoilers aren’t always an accident. People are searching for them. According to Google Trends, searches for “Mad Men” spoilers spike every season:

The same holds true for long-running shows like “The Bachelor”:

So maybe we don’t hate spoilers as much as we claim. Researchers at the University of California San Diego found that people actually like spoilers. Researchers asked people to read short summaries of stories, followed by the real thing. The results showed participants enjoyed a story more when they knew the ending.

Still, networks and production companies guard secrets and spoilers about their shows ferociously. The secrecy surrounding the scripts for shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” is notorious, and in the world of reality television, the effort is even fiercer.

No one demonstrates this more clearly than Kris Jenner, who has proven herself to be an incredibly adept manager of her family’s personal lives and connection to the media. As Bruce Jenner began transitioning to live as a woman, the Jenner/Kardashian family focused on preserving every possible exclusive story. Bruce’s ABC interview with Diane Sawyer contained almost no Kardashian commentary — they were saving it for their own special episodes about Bruce to air on E!. The “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” episodes related to Bruce’s transition don’t give away many details about the future — that’ll be exclusive to Bruce’s upcoming documentary.

ABC and reality shows use the same anti-spoiler tactics employed by the Kardashians to keep the winners of shows like “The Bachelor” a secret, even as bloggers and fans scan social media and tabloids for clues to what happened in shows that taped months earlier.

While the economic effect of spoilers on scripted or reality shows isn’t quite clear — do people end up not watching? Do spoilers actually generate more publicity? — it is clear that there’s still a premium on preserving the exclusive, for both media producers and consumers.

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