(Spoiler alert! The following post includes things that happened on “Downton Abbey,” “The Sopranos” and “Dallas.”)
The post to Facebook on a late Monday morning was simple enough. A photo of actor Thomas Howes as his character William from “Downton Abbey,” along with the status, “Oh, William. We will miss you.”
The post was meant to engage, and perhaps commiserate with, those Nashville Public Television fans that were sad that William had died the night before in episode 4 of season 2 of the series. Many people “liked” it, but many of those who posted in the comments section did not. It started off with “Hush! I haven’t watched last night’s episode!” from one commenter. Then “spoiler!!!! I’m not there yet! Just finished Season 1!!!” from another. That’s eight exclamation points in that one, if you’re counting. “Haven’t seen it yet either. Grr,” wrote one angry fan, and still another accused us of “bad form, really.” My favorite was, “Thanks for the spoiler … Who watches live TV?”
What? Well, in answer to that last question, when it comes to Middle Tennessee and NPT and an episode of “Downton Abbey” on a Sunday night, 50,000 people, apparently. But that’s not my point. The whole thing was curious to me. I’ve always understood the principle of issuing spoiler alerts for films, and respecting different schedules when it comes to movie watching. But television? When did this start?
What? Somebody Shot JR?
I thought about “The Sopranos,” the venerable and groundbreaking series that aired on HBO from 2001 to 2007 on Sunday nights. If somebody got whacked on that show, be it pinched in the pine barrens or knocked off in Newark, you knew it on Monday morning. Even if, like me, you didn’t watch the show. The morning shows all talked about it. Your friends all talked about it. It was big news. You couldn’t escape it. By the time I rented the entire series disc-by-disc via Netflix, I pretty much knew who was going to be whacked, and often in what episode. Can you imagine my walking around the office the Monday after a “Sopranos” Sunday, and telling people, “Ugh! I can’t believe you just told me Big Pussy got killed. Spoiler!!! I know it’s the second season of the series, but I’m only on disc 3 of Season One!” Is there anyone in the world, “Sopranos” watcher or not, who didn’t know that the series ended with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and a harsh fade to black?
Of course, regardless of the many people who do still watch shows on broadcast television at the time they air, many people do not. In the age of DVRs and Netflix and series box-sets and online streaming (PBS makes “Downton Abbey” available online the very next day), we are not watching television the same way. That last poster who asked, “Who watches live TV?” was asking a good question. No one doubts that technology has changed the way we watch television. But the comments on Facebook made me wonder if technology was also changing the way we talk about television.
A new Conversation
The days may be over when the entire nation watches scripted television together at the same time, like we all watched the finale of “M*A*S*H” or “Cheers” or even “Seinfeld.” Only reality shows or major sporting events get that treatment now — you can go on Facebook a minute after “American Idol” or “The Bachelorette” ends to know what happened. But we’re communicating with each other more than ever, and at the same time, with Facebook and Twitter and other social media tools. Had JR been shot last night on “Dallas,” but you could watch it online tomorrow when it’s more convenient, would it have been a spoiler to mention it today? How do you tell the world to stop communicating so you can catch up?
Was I wrong to post about William’s death on Facebook the day after the episode aired? In the national conversation, when it comes to scripted television, do we all need to be more conscientious of people’s viewing habits? Should we start to treat dramatic television the way we do films? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like much fun.
A native of Jersey City, New Jersey, Joe Pagetta is currently the director of media relations and online strategies for Nashville Public Television, where he also handles media relations for Nashville Film Festival. A freelance writer, his art reviews, profiles and essays have appeared most recently in ArtNowNashville.com, Nashville Arts Magazine, Chapter16.org, Nashville Scene and PBS Remotely Connected. He studied journalism at New York University, holds a B.A. in English from St. Peter’s College, and got his start writing about sports, news and life for his hometown Jersey Journal. [When he’s not seeking out film or art, or relating to the media, he dabbles in independent singer-songwriting, rides his bikes, reads or tends to his book collection, and tries to perfect his Italian-American cooking technique. He’s most proud of the sandwich named after him at Savarino’s Cucina in Nashville.]