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Spoiler Alert: Viewers in the Know Still Watch

Warning: The article you’re about to read contains discussions about spoilers in television shows. Such notices have become commonplace in TV writing as on-demand viewing continues to dilute shared water-cooler opportunities. If Mad Men creator Matthew Wein- er (a famous spoiler stickler) had his way, viewers who tuned in to the sixth-season premiere of the AMC drama on April 7 would not have read even the smallest detail about the episode in a review (much to the chagrin of some critics). But in today’s social TV world, what con- stitutes a spoiler? And is being in the know always bad? We looked at three recent spoiler breaks and got three different takes on the phenomenon from the executives involved. Read on at your own risk.

Downton Abbey (PBS)

The Spoiler: After the U.K. series’ Christmas finale, many U.S. viewers awoke to the news that star Dan Stevens, one half of Downton’s central romantic couple, was exiting the show. 

The Reaction: While the heartthrob’s departure may have sent many a Downton fan into a depressed state, the U.S. ratings were anything but: The series’ season- three finale on Feb. 17 averaged 8.2 million viewers, making it PBS’ most-watched show ever, with the sea- son outpacing the prior year by 66%. 

The Effect: Good. “I don’t think it got spoiled,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and GM, general audi- ence programming, PBS. “I think all the talk about spoilers amplified the buzz about the show and we ended up in a really good place.” Given Downton’s record ratings and the fact that lining it up with the U.K. airing would mean a fall premiere, when the U.S. broadcast landscape is most crowded, PBS is sticking with the nearly four- month lag time despite the risk of spoilers. But the strat- egy is not one size fits all. “For some of our other shows, we are looking at trying to line things up earlier,” Hoppe said. Case in Point: Call the Midwife and Mr. Selfridge, which premiered on PBS on March 31, just 10 and 12 weeks, respectively, after their initial debuts in the U.K. 

House of Cards (Netflix) 

The Spoiler: Netflix’s all at once release of the first season’s 13 episodes stifled its water cooler effect. With Cards fans watching at all different paces, no one knew what was safe to talk about. 

The Reaction: After the show’s Feb. 1 premiere, viewers trolled Twitter and the Internet looking for ways to talk to people who had watched an equal number of episodes. Blogs popped up inviting watchers who had seen the entire season to discuss. Some sites still chose to recap the episodes on a weekly basis (in linear TV time, Cards would have aired 10 episodes to date). 

The Effect: Neutral. Netflix is standing by its release approach for upcoming series including Hemlock Grove and Arrested Development, pledging consumer choice above all else. “We’re starting a different style of water cooler,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said at the D: Dive Into Media conference in February, noting that consumers, particularly Netflix subscribers, are used to watching seasons after they have aired on TV. “There are going to be surprises that will be ruined by spoilers, but that would have happened anyway,” Arrested creator Mitch Hurwitz said at the TCA press tour in January. “So it’s happening maybe on one day for hardcore fans. But the stuff just now exists. It just lives out there.” 

The Walking Dead (AMC) 

The Spoiler: A season-two DVD ad on AMC’s website revealed the death of a main character with three episodes remaining in the show’s sophomore run in March 2012. 

The Reaction: The network says it’s confident the snafu won’t be repeated. “Any time that you have that many departments touching something, you run the risk of something falling through the cracks,” said Joel Stillerman, AMC executive VP of original programming, production & digital content. “We’ve applied the learning and made a process fix and have gotten to the point where our process catches the vast majority, if not all, of those things.” 

The Effect: Bad. The undead fans weren’t deterred, as nearly 9 million viewers tuned into the season two finale when Shane finally met his fate, a series high in ratings at the time. Regardless, Stillerman says AMC takes the same hard line approach to spoilers as Mad Men’s Weiner for all its shows, calling spoiler free television a “sacred concept” for the network. “Whatever form it comes in, they’re never good, because there’s just a whole lot of people out there who appreciate watching the show and experiencing it with no preconceived notions,” Stillerman said.

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