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Streaming has changed spoiler etiquette. ‘Succession’ fans would know.

ByTeam BB

Apr 14, 2023

Warning: “Succession” spoilers ahead (obviously).

Logan Roy had been dead for only about an hour when his first obituary hit social media, sparking delight from some readers, and anger in others.

The demise of Roy, the fictional 84-year-old media mogul at the center of the HBO drama “Succession,” is the most consequential plot development of the critically lauded series now in its fourth and final season, and tees up the question inherent in the show’s title: Who succeeds him?

The Roy family from HBO’s “Succession” has a unique way of interacting with each other — and the outside world. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

But many fans complained the show’s shocking moment was ruined before they could watch the episode — even despite their best efforts to avoid social media spoilers — due to headlines and other content that popped into their news feeds. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, published a real obituary of the fictional character as soon as the episode’s initial broadcast ended. Entertainment outlet Vulture published its own obit, and tweeted a black-and-white “RIP” photo of the character the morning after the episode aired.

The handling of TV spoilers has been a hot topic for decades. But the growth of on-demand viewing via streaming services, and the development of social media as a real-time virtual water cooler, means audiences and media makers are locked in a never-ending debate over the socially appropriate length of time to wait before talking spoilers.

Spoilers from unusual sources

Rachel O’Neill muted the #Succession hashtag on Twitter to avoid spoilers. In Ireland, where the 28-year-old HR employee lives, “Succession” airs in the early-morning hours on Mondays. She usually watches it at the end of her Monday, after work.

But this week, an Irish Times headline spoiled Roy’s demise for her. It was around noon Monday that a tweet from the newspaper appeared on her timeline — an analysis piece contemplating whether the death was one of the greatest ever executed on a TV show.

O’Neill was livid — especially because it came from an Irish paper.

“Half your audience hasn’t seen it, and you just spoiled the biggest plotline that no one saw coming,” she said. The Irish Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Her partner asked if she wanted to share the spoiler with him, but she declined. When they sat down to watch the episode together, she envied his viewing experience. He was enraptured, not knowing whether the character would live or die.

Meanwhile, O’Neill said, she was “sitting there going, ‘This would be different if I didn’t know he was dead. I wouldn’t know where this was going.’ To be clear, it was one of the best episodes I’ve ever watched. I was just annoyed that I knew he was dead right from the start.”

Joseph Teegardin made a point of watching live — he had seen Twitter rumblings suggesting a bombshell was coming.

But he was still bothered by the spoilers that proliferated online soon after the episode ended, especially the ones posted without warning by news outlets. In a tweet to Vulture, Teegardin wrote: “Really gross to do this to the people that have not yet watched. Zero shame, zero integrity to the followers who trust you.”

It’s possible to avoid social media until you’re caught up, but spoilers are getting more unavoidable across the web, said Teegardin, a 36-year-old marketer and film school student from San Francisco.

“We’re not in a world where we’re logging on and logging off — we’re always on,” he said in an interview. “So when people suggest staying off the internet, that’s to me very challenging.”

He believes spoilers detract from the viewer experience — so much so that he didn’t want to go into detail about a time he was himself spoiled. It was something that happened on “Better Call Saul,” which aired its final episode in August.

“I don’t want to be blamed as a person that then ruins something for someone else,” Teegardin said.

There’s greater sensitivity among those in media to avoid spoilers — if for no other reason than to avoid alienating audiences — and take reasonable precautions to keep key plot points out of headlines or give a heads-up that a review will contain spoilers, said longtime television and film critic Keith Phipps, who co-authors The Reveal on Substack and penned the 2022 book, “Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career.”

Audiences bear responsibility too, he added, to understand the chances of coming across spoilers on places like Twitter or in entertainment news coverage.

Phipps understood the frustration some “Succession” fans felt when they dutifully avoided Twitter only to have the plot spoiled some other way; no one likes catching a spoiler in the wild.

“I’m thinking of all the Harry Potter fans learning of Dumbledore dying from someone hanging that banner over the highway,” he said. “Clearly that’s a bad way to go.”

A real obit for a fictional death

Though viewership totals for “Succession” are pedestrian compared to the top broadcast TV and HBO hits, it gets outsize devotion from its core audience, said Matt Brennan, the deputy entertainment editor for the Los Angeles Times.

“One of the reasons why ‘Succession’ has become such a water cooler show for people who work in the media is because it hits so close to home,” he said.

Brennan edited the Times’s viral faux-obit, and credited writers Meredith Blake and Yvonne Villarreal for the concept and execution.

“We thought the best way to pay tribute to that and also comment on it in a thoughtful way was to treat the death of Logan Roy like the death of a real-life figure of similar stature,” he said.

Brennan said his team felt it was important to publish the story immediately as the episode ended, adding that the L.A. Times took steps to mitigate spoiling the twist: Its Twitter feed used a generic image from the show as its photo and advised readers in the tweet to move on if they hadn’t seen the episode.

That message didn’t necessarily reach readers.

Emily Bernay had finished watching the episode when a friend sent her a screenshot of the L.A. Times obituary. She thought it was clever, so she posted a screenshot to Twitter thinking other “Succession” fans would appreciate it like she had.

Instead, all hell broke loose.

Bernay’s account has only about 4,000 followers, but the tweet spread widely, racking up more than 2.5 million views. A wave of angry responses rolled in: People told the 28-year-old writer that the fictional Logan Roy “was probably still warm when you tweeted,” that she had “robbed the potential of watching the greatest episode of tv from me,” that she was “a bad person.” A few sent death wishes.

“I mean, now I’m laughing at it but it was honestly — that day and the next day — insane. Insane,” Bernay said in an interview. “The stuff people were saying — I don’t even know how people can send those types of things.”

She hadn’t meant to spoil the show for anyone, and felt bad when people told her she had. But, she said, she was just posting something that a major newspaper had published. “I just don’t understand why I had to be so brutally attacked when it was just a reshare of a national publication.”

More to the point, “Logan Roy” was trending on Twitter. Tons of people were tweeting about the show in real time — sharing their reactions and analysis as it aired.

“How can you expect not to potentially see something the night that something huge like this airs?” Bernay asked.

Television spoilers have been debated since the early 1980s when “Dallas” viewers waited eight long months for the answer to television’s most famous cliffhanger, “who shot J.R.?” But the concept of the “spoiler warning” becoming more ingrained in public discourse has tracked with the rise of serialized TV storytelling, Phipps explained.

“The types of shows people are watching these days have more spoiler potential than they used to; up to the 1990s, there were fewer serialized shows and more self-contained episodes,” Phipps said. “Relative to what else was on, [shows like] ‘NYPD Blue’ or ‘The X-Files’ had more spoiler potential.”

The television landscape has changed, with streaming now making up the largest share of TV viewing, beating cable and broadcast, according to the Hollywood Reporter. At the same time, communication habits and media coverage of TV shows and their fandoms have transformed.

The popularity of shows like “Succession,” “The Mandalorian” (Disney Plus) and “Star Trek: Picard” (Paramount Plus) mixed with the sheer devotion of their fandoms offer clear incentives for media and news organizations to cover hotly anticipated shows from pilot to finale.

Phipps cited the now-defunct website Television Without Pity that, when it debuted in 1998, was novel in its episode reviews, recaps intermixed with running commentary. The site inspired formats popularized like the Onion A.V. Club, where Phipps was a former editor, which were forebearers of the current media environment chock full of YouTube reaction videos, recap podcasts and written recaps published everywhere from fan forums to legacy newspapers (including The Washington Post).

But the rules around the length of time before spoiler warnings expire are still nebulous, Phipps said. “It’s on a show-to-show basis.”

The first peak of “spoilerable” shows hit about a decade ago with “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” Phipps said. “We have newer shows like that where everyone in the culture is in to them.”

Brennan, the L.A. Times editor, admitted he was prepared for some pushback — to the framing of the headline, the format of the story and the timing of the publication. But they were all, in his view, “a calculated risk” which included taking steps to mitigate spoilers which they would not normally take for a story.

“This feels like one of the largest conversations around spoiler culture that we’ve had in a minute and it will be interesting to see how others feel this issue have or haven’t evolved over time,” he added.

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