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NBC is not making this change out of some high-minded principle. Like any network, it needs to find ways to make online video work as a business. It realizes that results are going to leak and tweeters are going to tweet, no matter what it does. But most important, TV networks have been finding that spoilers actually boost ratings for live events, from awards shows to tennis matches: as East Coasters spill the results, buzz builds, and West Coast ratings actually go up.
It's a paradox of the spoiler culture, and not the only one. Audiences today are both more spoiler-paranoid and spoiler-obsessed. On the one hand, entire fan sites exist for the sole purpose of leaking photos from movie shoots and copies of scripts. On the other, fans cry bloody spoilerage over picayune details like what year a season of Mad Men is set in. (Spoiler alert: sometime in the '60s.) The push-pull of temptation and TMI is so great that critic Dan Kois once codified a spoiler statute of limitations across genres. (Unmarked spoilers for a movie: O.K. the Monday after it opens. For a reality show? The second it's over.)
And it turns out, even if you think a spoiler has ruined a story for you, it likely did just the opposite. In 2011 researchers at the University of California, San Diego, had undergraduates read a dozen classic short stories, including Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which has one of the most famous twist endings in literature. One group of students read a spoiler beforehand; the other didn't. In 11 of 12 cases, the "spoiled" readers enjoyed the stories more.
That doesn't surprise me. A spoiler may be rude and unwelcome, but it also frees you from focusing on what and lets you pay attention to how and why. Fixating on spoilers and plot twists trains you to scour narratives for clues instead of character. It turns stories into Rubik's Cubes: Figure out the solution and they're done.
But despite the sugar rush that a shocking "reveal" offers--and from Inception to Lost, pop culture today is reveal-crazy--that's not what lingers from a good story. It's Luke leaving his ruined farm on Tatooine and seeking his destiny in Star Wars; Carrie Mathison chasing her demons in Homeland; Don Draper distilling heartbreak into an ad-campaign pitch on Mad Men. What finally mattered about The Sopranos was not the surprise ending but what it meant, what Tony deserved and how we responded to everything that came before it. Any story that can be ruined by giving away the ending wasn't worth your time in the first place. Does anyone refuse to see Romeo and Juliet again because we know they [spoiler] themselves?
True, not all spoilers are created equal. For the results of a competition I care about--say, Top Chef, which is my Olympics--I'll stick my fingers in my ears and scream "La la la la!" as loud as anyone. And sure, if you call up a friend out of the blue, it won't kill you to say, "Whoa, did you just see The Walking Dead?" before you start blabbing.