“I can’t be the only one in the boat on this,” complained a reader about separate newspaper interviews in which actors discussed the fates of characters they had played in two immensely popular television series, Game of Thrones and Line of Duty. Don’t click the hyperlinks in this article if you are in the same boat. In the reader’s view, “There’s now an explosion of content and not everyone gets to watch on the day of broadcast. I can’t afford HBO and I don’t download illegally, so I haven’t seen GoT [season] 8 yet. And it’s only been a few weeks since it was shown.”
I sympathise, especially as premium sporting events move from free-to-air to pay TV. But it is precisely because communications have changed so much that the main responsibility for avoiding information that discloses a plot line, the fate of a character or the result of a sports contest is shifting from media professionals to individual audience members.
Multiple devices, streaming services, binge viewing, from-the-couch conversations in real time via social media and liveblogs have changed the way we consume entertainment. One editor recalled to me a complaint that the death of a character in the US crime drama The Wire had been revealed in an article published 10 years after the episode had aired. The aggrieved reader was following the five-series story on DVD.
A few weeks from public release of anything is too long to expect media professionals to protect you from knowledge of its outcomes. A day? It depends, was the view of several editors when I asked how they manage spoiler alerts. Factors to consider include the type of content, the significance of the particular detail, inherent newsworthiness and the time since the material first became available. For example, if it was released in another timezone and your readers are not likely to have an opportunity to watch it until that evening in their timezone, a review or recap might need particular care. Vigilance is always required, even with the selection of still images from a fresh episode. Although merely an illustration to accompany text, and officially supplied, the image may be enough to indicate to fans what has happened.
A sign of a changing environment is what might be called the pre-emptive or teaser spoiler, such as the news that the writer of half of the first series of the TV drama Killing Eve, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, plans to write and play a character to be murdered by the assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in a forthcoming series.
Film reviewers have well established conventions to avoid spoilers, but I’m told that challenges do arise. For instance, when a whole film turns on a final-scene twist, how do you review it without discussing that? Promotional trailers for films seem at times to reveal more of its plot points than would reviewers.
A TV convention almost as old as broadcasting is the “look away now” warning before fresh sports results appear on screen, so that those who want to watch later highlights packages can take steps to avoid premature knowledge. This courtesy still has its place, but a shrinking one in an expanding media world.
One editor observed that readers consume sports coverage “sometimes as if it is news and sometimes as if it is a piece of art. Not just ‘what happened?’ but ‘I know what happened, can I read a review of it?’ and/or share the experience. Not just on match reports; on big games we get a lot of traffic to the liveblogs after they close. People want to feel the moments again.”
• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor