This past summer, much of my TV viewing was dedicated to watching the series “Downton Abbey” and “Breaking Bad” in their entirety. “Downton Abbey” continues this January, but “Breaking Bad” concluded its five-season run before I started watching it. I was concerned that I would accidentally learn Walter’s and Jesse’s fates before seeing the final episodes. My friends who had seen the series were quite accommodating. But it’s tough keeping secrets in the digital age, and unfortunately, I did learn what happened in advance of watching. Jesse’s outcome was revealed by Seth Meyers during this year’s Emmy broadcast. And Walter? Well, I guess I’m to blame, since I was stupid enough to read a New York Times article in which the first paragraph states “Warning: Contains spoilers about the new age of television.”
The article, by Emily Steel, discusses the social ramifications of revealing dramatic plot twists. She cites a study by Grant McCracken, which Netflix plans to use as the basis for a digital promotion which creates a flow chart to classify people by their propensity for spoiling. At the root of all this is an attempt to understand how people view television content in the age of time-shifting and streaming, which has critical impacts on TV’s business model.
As viewing patterns change, so does water cooler conversation. You can’t simply blurt out, “How crazy was it when Danny took out Joey last night?” You need to first establish that the episode was watched by the people in the room. But the burden seems to fall more so on the one who isn’t caught up; I fell a few episodes behind my friends watching “Sons of Anarchy” this fall – so I had to make sure that they weren’t talking about it when I was around.
But with all of this conversational jockeying going on, I needed to ask a pretty basic question: how much time must elapse before what happened in a popular TV show becomes “fair game” – no longer subject to Spoiler Alerts?
To find out, we surveyed TV viewers from our online consumer panel. We know from conducting new product development market research studies (using conjoint and Bracket) that the way a question is framed influences how respondents answer. We wanted to look at the issue from both sides, so we randomly split our sample into two groups, and posed essentially the same question to both: how many days need to pass before people can communicate freely about a show and not face criticism for spoiling it for someone who hasn’t watched it yet? We asked each group to assume a different role: one group was told to assume that they had just watched the episode, and the other group was told to assume the episode had aired, but they hadn’t watched it yet. We upped the stakes by describing the show as the final episode of a series that they liked a lot....