Walking on Dragon Eggshells: Avoiding Game of Thrones Spoilers

by Glenn Hower | Aug. 31, 2017

“Hey, did you watch that popular show last night where the thing happened?”

“No. I haven’t watched it yet. Thanks a lot.”

“Oh… Sorry…”

The penultimate season of HBO’s global hit series Game of Thrones is in the books. While many of the show’s die-hard fans are sure to have watched it through the season finale, coverage in the media suggests otherwise. Media outlets have been careful to mask key plot developments in their headlines and subheads:

  • From Nerdist ­– “A Farewell to [Spoiler], Game of Thrones Latest Death – Warning: This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones’ seventh season finale.” (Note: Hyperlink withheld because the URL contains the spoiler. Oops.)
  • From Deadline – “’Game of Thrones’ Finale Review: Penultimate Season Ends Epic & Shrewd – SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Game of Thrones Season 7 finale.” 
  • From NPR’s Monkey See – “’Game of Thrones’ Season 7 Finale: ‘We’ve Been Here For Some Time’ – We’ve recapped Season 7 of HBO’s Game of Thrones here on Monkey See. Spoilers abound.”
  • From BBC’s Newsbeat – “Here’s what fans think will happen in the Game of Thrones finale – This story contains spoilers up to the end of season seven of Game of Thrones.” 

Spoilers have plagued Game of Thrones fans since its earliest days, as information leaks have manifested in a number of ways. In 2014, a math teacher in Belgium threatened spoilers to a disruptive class if the students did not behave. Earlier this season, a group of hackers gained access to internal HBO documents outlining episodes of season 7, demanding a ransom of around $6.5 million. The hackers subsequently leaked plot details of remaining episodes. In a bit of self-inflicted spoiling, HBO Spain just plain aired an episode early, leading to a glut of 1080p copies flooding torrent sites. The live broadcast is still important for programmers, and generating views and buzz leading up to and during the broadcast is a vital part of TV programmers’ businesses. But, in an era of on-demand viewing, some consumers are pushing off watching episodes for various reasons including convenience and full season binge viewing. Conversely, the prevalence of social media use makes avoiding spoilers even more difficult than ever. Aside from possible lost friendships, exposure to spoilers harms the content industry, the consumer, and news media for two key reasons:

  1. Spoilers potentially impact the content owners’ investments – A large scale release of spoilers affects content owners’ ability to effectively monetize the content in which they have invested. Having a television episode spoiled decreases the likelihood that prospective viewers will end up watching the content. Regardless of the content owner’s and distributor’s business models, fewer eyeballs means fewer dollars. If the content is subsequently pirated as with the HBO Spain incident, the damages can be even greater.
  2. Spoilers negatively impact the user experience – Even for those who choose to watch content after having it spoiled, the experience is irrevocably damaged. Dramas like Game of Thrones in particular rely on tension and deception to further their storylines. For a viewer who knows what is coming, the emotional involvement in the content becomes less acute, and any “big reveals” of the plotline seem obvious and unsurprising.

No matter who spoils the content for the viewer, the viewer will likely exude disdain for the spoiling entity. As such, news media and commentary outlets are careful to warn their readers and viewers of upcoming spoilers in an effort to maintain a positive rapport, to the point that commentators often release both a comprehensive review and a spoiler-free review to keep their audiences happy.

With catch-up television and on-demand viewing overtaking linear viewing in U.S. broadband households (58% of video consumption on television was non-linear in 2016), there is unfortunately no hard rule on when publishing or mentioning spoilers is appropriate. So when in doubt, as Alex Kingston’s Doctor Who character Dr. River Song is fond of saying, “Spoilers.”

Image courtesy of Twitter user @Thrones_Meme

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