As Cliffhanger TV Shows End Seasons, a Look at the Hypocrisy of Spoilers

The fear of having the fun ruined in advance by over-curious fans often drives us to watch shows real-time, rather than at our leisure later on.

A scene from the sixth season of "Game of Thrones."
Helen Sloan/Yes

Just before the final episode of the sixth season of the “Game of Thrones” series is aired, the web has been flooded with guesses and theories about what’s expected to happen. Because this season goes beyond the series of fantasy novels on which all the other episodes were based, the anxiety about spoilers has intensified.

The concept of “spoiler” may have originated in the 1970s, when the humor magazine National Lampoon ran an article about endings to movies, but there’s no doubt that the social networks have since strengthened the hype around the phenomenon.

According to the unwritten rules of spoiling, one can share theories on social networks until the episode is broadcast; once the opening credits roll, however, any tweet, even a single word or emoji expressing any feeling about the episode is considered a spoiler. The fear of being exposed to statuses or headlines that will ruin the fun drives many people to watch the episode in real time, even if it means staying up to the wee hours, just to preserve as “clean” a viewing experience as possible.

So even as the technological revolution has enabled us to watch series at our leisure and not when they are actually broadcast, the fear of spoilers has robbed us of the freedom technology has granted us and returned us to the sofa for the original air time. But many argue that this fear is exaggerated, especially given the success of the earlier seasons of “Game of Thrones,” and the ratings-busting series “The Walking Dead,” which are based on books or comics that most people have already read. The same is true about our enjoyment of series based totally or in part on real life events.

Indeed, in contrast to viewers who are terrified of early revelations that will ruin the series for them, there are many who actually seek spoilers and get great pleasure out of disclosing information in advance. Hundreds of thousands of such viewers made headlines last week when the cable television channel AMC declared war on them, to prevent them from revealing plot elements from “The Walking Dead.”

It started after the airing of the last episode of the series’ sixth season, in April. The last scene reveals who Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the mysterious villain of the season, is. In the final moments of the episode, Negan murders one of the heroes, but the camera does not reveal the identity of the victim.

Many viewers were furious that AMC chose to end the series with a cliffhanger. Fans felt that both the series' creators and network executives were more concerned about assuring ratings for the next season, while meanwhile belittling the viewers and undermining their viewing experience.

From that moment, fans began collecting every possible hint as to the identity of the murder victim. Every crumb was posted on a successful fan site called The Spoiling Dead, which has some 400,000 followers, and deals primarily with discussions and theories about what’s going on in the series. Some fans managed to access information about the set where the show was filmed, and noted who was still alive, reducing the list of possible murder victims. Reading the fans’ posts makes it clear, however, that all this is done out of their great love for the series.

But the fans quickly discovered that the feeling was not reciprocated, to say the least. Network executives, who wanted to enjoy the media buzz generated by the cliffhanger and to prevent fans from accurately identifying the victim, sent their lawyers to silence the website by court order.

According to the network, theories based on inside information (photographs, information leaked from the production crew or from journalists who received episodes in advance for review), constituted a copyright violation. According to the order, if one of the theories about the identity of Negan’s victim proves to be correct, the fan website could be exposed to legal action. Because the website managers couldn’t defend themselves against the network’s battery of attorneys, the operators announced that they would stop posting theories about Negan’s victim.

This incident followed a lawsuit filed by HBO last month against a surfer who posted videos on YouTube with too-accurate predictions about the sixth-season episodes of “Game of Thrones.” The surfer explained that these were essentially guesses, but admitted that in some instances he had gotten inside information from various sources. HBO sued him for copyright violation and blocked him from engaging in any more online speculation.

Such conduct by the television industry is laced with a great deal of hypocrisy. On the one hand, the networks encourage the series’ creators and often even insist that they create cliffhangers that will raise ratings, create media hype, and drive the fans crazy. On the other hand, they prevent viewers from taking an interest in the questions that arise from the shows in an effort to find answers.

The network attacks demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of “fandom,” which is based entirely on the enthusiasm viewers have for a given show, and the enjoyment they get from making predictions about what comes next.