Rant: On Spoiler Culture, Social Media Misconduct and The Walking Dead Midseason Finale

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Last night The Walking Dead aired its midseason finale, “Coda.” I, like many other television viewers, utilize technology (DVRs, video services online like Amazon and iTunes) to watch the latest episodes of my favorite shows at my leisure. So you can imagine my disappointment when AMC’s official Facebook page for The Walking Dead posted a gigantic spoiler for the end of the episode at 9:59 PM EST and then re-shared it to their feed around 1 AM, presumably after the west coast feed aired.

If you’ve followed this blog long enough, you might remember a similar situation that arose when How I Met Your Mother aired its 8th season finale. I wrote about it here: “How Facebook Ruined Your HIMYM Finale”. The gist of it is that whoever was in charge of social media decided to post a picture of the final shot of the season with the caption reading the final line of the episode. It prominently displayed a spoiler for something that fans of the show had been waiting for since the series premiered. There was outcry.

walking dead facebook spoilerIn the write up I did of HIMYM’s season 8 finale, I fell somewhere in the middle when it came to the conversation of whether or not this was a spoiler and if the community manager who made the decision had given the finale enough time. However, last night’s Facebook snafu is a much more egregious case of social media short-sightedness and blatant disregard for a fan base that has catapulted The Walking Dead into a cultural phenomenon and ratings cash cow for AMC.

The original post went live at 9:59 PM last night. That means the Facebook page published a spoiler for the midseason finale for one of television’s biggest shows before Talking Dead even started airing. How can anyone think that’s acceptable?

twdspoilerOne of the arguments I’ve seen in defense of the incident is that it’s simply the price you pay for not viewing it as it airs. This is blatantly incorrect and a dangerously outdated way to approach modern television viewing. In October, the season premiere of The Walking Dead made headlines as it hit a series-record in its ratings. 17.3 million people viewed the season premiere live and the episode beat out NBC’s Sunday Night Football in the ratings.

twdcrossedYes, the majority of viewers (at least according to the horrendously outdated Nielsen ratings, but that’s an entirely different conversation) still watch the show live. But a few days after an episode airs, the DVR numbers are counted. In the case of The Walking Dead’s premiere in October, ratings saw a 29% increase to a staggering 22.37 million viewers after only the first round of time-shifted numbers was counted. That’s 5 million+ viewers that watched the premiere on their DVR or On-Demand a few days after it aired. 5 million viewers should be enough to make spoilers on social media pages a big enough taboo that it’s indefensible. To an extent, that’s currently the case.

However, there are still outlying remarks that presume that watching live programming is (and should still be) the status quo. That’s simply incorrect, especially when you consider the fact that this particular incident happened to occur on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I don’t have the data on hand, but I am willing to bet that the number of people who were still traveling (or perhaps relying on DVRs after a long 4-day weekend with relatives) when the midseason finale aired could rival the number of viewers that inflated the premiere’s ratings through DVR numbers.

twdfacebookThere’s also the amount of people in the country who work irregular hours and have no choice in whether or not they watch the show live. Until this past September, I spent 8 years working nights. My job required me to go in at midnight and work until 8am. This made it incredibly inconvenient for me to watch television as it aired. I would have to sacrifice valuable sleep in order to catch the latest episode live. This made it difficult to navigate social media on nights when I worked. In cases of certain shows I was really emotionally invested in (Lost, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones), I would institute a total social media blackout until I could watch the episode when I got home. It has become a standard practice but it really doesn’t apply to The Walking Dead debacle.

As I mentioned earlier, The Walking Dead post went live a minute before the episode even finished airing and then it was re-shared once the west coast saw the episode. Even if you had decided on a social media blackout, there was no time to implement it. The timing of the post negated your right to browse Facebook while the episode aired.

Still, you can argue that if someone is that bothered by television spoilers yet can’t find the time to watch it as it airs or take precautionary measures to keep themselves from being spoiled, the blame should be put on the ones getting spoiled. And I would begrudgingly agree with you, with the caveat that this should only apply to public social media reactions.

twdrescuemissionThere’s a certain etiquette that’s developed for fan reactions to live television on social media. Don’t openly spoil something until people have time to catch up. People who disregard this are the exact reason I steered clear from social media when I worked nights. But it’s worth reiterating that The Walking Dead spoiler didn’t come from a fan of the show. In fact, I didn’t see (and still haven’t seen) a single spoiler from fans of the show on my Facebook newsfeed. If the sampling of viewers I have on my Facebook friends list can refrain from spoilers, why can’t community managers who work for the company producing the show grasp that concept?

twd crossed picThere’s a much bigger issue at hand here, however. I’ve hinted at it throughout this post and I know I’ve buried the lede deep enough. You can say that the onus for not getting a show spoiled is on the viewer who chooses not to watch it live or to remain on social media while the episode airs. But the most egregious thing that happened last night is that the Facebook post went live a minute before the east coast finished watching the episode. That means that the entire west coast was susceptible to a spoiler for the show’s midseason finale a couple hours before the episode was even broadcast on their screen!

So not only did the post alienate DVR viewers, it disregarded a massive percentage of the show’s fan base. The post also exposed international viewers to the spoiler before their local networks have the chance to air the show. It was also cross-posted to the show’s Twitter feed.

People are obviously upset. Several articles have also popped up detailing this incident around the Internet today. The bleak reality is that this likely happened due to a lack of understanding when it comes to the new standard by which we view and discuss television.

coda comments

The Walking Dead spoiler and the HIMYM spoiler a year and half ago are indicative of a fundamental lack of understanding about new media and the current state of television viewing. The fact that these spoilers came from people in the employ of the companies creating the content is absolutely unacceptable. It shows that the fault lies with those in the industry whose understanding of how the public consumes their product is profoundly skewed.

Water cooler conversations have evolved into a dance where tailoring discussions around where people are in a series is now the norm. To condescendingly shift the blame for the spoiler onto the viewer who has adapted to the new way many people watch television is a grossly narrow-minded reaction. Telling people they shouldn’t have missed the episode or that they shouldn’t have browsed social media while the episode aired (or even before) defies the changing landscape of television. It instead breathes life into the advertising-based inaccuracies of the Nielsen ratings while subtly asserting that we are still living in a world where “appointment viewing” is a requirement rather than a fading cultural practice.

Having said that, this season of The Walking Dead has been kind of mediocre. Spoiler or not, I don’t have much faith that “Coda” will sway my opinion whenever I decide to watch it.

twdspoilerdouche

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