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Monday, March 18

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This article contains spoilers for Alias, Citizen Kane, Dallas, Gone with the Wind, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Lost, Rome, Serenity, Smallville, Veronica Mars, and the Star Wars movies. Consider yourself warned (perhaps overly so).

On March 21, 1980, Dallas ended its second season with arguably the biggest TV cliffhanger of all time: Who shot bad boy oil millionaire J.R. Ewing? That spring and summer, fans worldwide debated and speculated feverishly. Was J.R. dead? Did his wife, Sue Ellen, pull the trigger? Or was it younger brother Bobby? The shooter's identity — Kristin Shepherd, Sue Ellen's sister and one of J.R.'s mistreated mistresses — wasn't revealed until a full eight months later during the fourth episode of Season Three. Commercials during the November 21 show cost $500,000, and 350 million people in 57 countries tuned in, including 83 million in the United States, or 76 percent of the viewing audience. The producers themselves didn't make a firm decision until right before the episode aired; they filmed footage of each cast member committing the crime before choosing their culprit.

Is there any way that this mystery could be kept today? True secrets are rare in this age of the information superhighway. There are thousands of websites dedicated to almost every element of pop culture, including "spoilers." Spoilers include upcoming plot points, character development, guest stars, even direct dialogue. Some fans eagerly seek out each tidbit before a television show airs, wanting to know every detail ahead of time. On the other end of the spectrum are spoiler-phobes, who consider casting news, summaries in TV Guide, and promotional trailers for upcoming episodes off limits.

For example, weeks before the Alias season premiere, word leaked out that Michael Vartan — who played Michael Vaughn on the ABC spy series — had been written off the show. The entertainment media picked up on the story when fans created the MV CAMPAIGN website "to gather ideas and put them into effect regarding the best and most constructive ways to convey our feelings regarding the potential loss of the wonderful character Michael Vaughn, and the talented actor who portrays him." In fact, Vaughn did "die" at the end of the first Season Five episode; however, Alias resurrects people all the time, so there's a likely chance that Vartan might appear again. But knowing that he was on his way out lessened the dramatic impact and surprise of his "death" for those who were inadvertently spoiled.

A much lower-rated-than-Dallas murder mystery drove the series Veronica Mars in its freshman season. Creator Rob Thomas is notorious for hating spoilers and leaks. In a letter to his fans, Thomas explained, "I know that if the answer to the 'who killed Lilly Kane' storyline had been all over the internet, I would've been upset. When the spoilers are put in a clearly defined link that allows users to avoid seeing them, they don't bother me that much. I can't say I understand the people who are spoiler junkies, however. I'm a huge fan of certain shows, and the last thing I would want would be to know what's going to happen next." He plans to deliberately mislead fans with fake spoilers, sometimes known as foilers. "We are working a little harder at spreading disinformation this year. I believe a lot of our spoilers come out of our audition scenes. This year, we're creating fake audition scenes that don't really exist in the show or we're changing names around, so that the wrong information will filter into the spoilers. It's a mystery show. I still want to be able to surprise people." (For the record, Aaron Ecchols was Lilly's killer.)

Others embrace the fan grapevine. Joss Whedon, the man behind TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, chose to show an unfinished version of his feature film Serenity to several thousand people in preselected cities months before its scheduled release date. Whedon even filmed a message asking avid fans to spread the word about the movie, to generate that intangible plus known as "buzz." Word soon spread that Serenity included the death of two major characters. Those not wanting to know the ending of the movie had to tread carefully to avoid knowing the outcome. And, similar to Alias, a campaign to "save" one of the fallen crew launched online within hours. It didn't affect the final cut of the movie.

ABC juggernaut Lost recently struck a bit of a compromise. Each script is printed on colored paper (making them harder to photocopy) with watermarks (making them easy to trace if it is leaked), and actors usually only receive pages for their specific scenes. However, producers invited the media and some fans to watch the Season Two premiere days before it aired. Of course, detailed descriptions of "Man of Science, Man of Faith" popped up online almost immediately, to the delight of spoiler gatherers.

Spoilers are not just limited to moving media either. Less than 24 hours after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince went on sale, the identity of the prince as well as the death of Dumbledore at the hands (or wand) of Snape were leaked online, often deliberately in all caps and bold print.

But where do we draw the line in protecting those who want to watch or read things with an unsullied mind? HBO's Rome features its take on real-life milestones surrounding Julius Caesar's rise to power. Is it a spoiler to reveal that Pompey is killed? Or that Brutus and others assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March? After all, the actual events happened 2000 years ago and are well-recorded in accepted historical sources as well as artistic ones ("Et tu, Brute?"). Also, how long must one be silent about content in general? A day? A week? A month? With TiVo and DVRs, one needs not wait for reruns to watch shows that air opposite one another. But not everyone is able to view episodes the night they air, because, you know, some people have lives that don't revolve around the idiot box. Strange, I know.

The question, "What is a spoiler?" continues to be debated daily. Definitions wary widely, and the answer is purely subjective. The less I care about a TV show or movie, the more likely I am to seek out spoilers, which is why I know that in an upcoming episode, Smallville's Lana Lang joins a Kryptonite-infected vampire sorority headed by a student named Buffy Sanders. (Homage or blatant rip-off? Tune in October 28 to the WB to find out!) I respect others' wishes to not know details ahead of time, so if I do have information, I don't reveal it unless asked. After I see a movie or particular TV show, I try to be considerate to those who have yet to watch it. But if months or even years have gone by? Not so much. Rhett Butler leaves Scarlett, Rosebud is Kane's childhood snow sled, and Darth Vader is Luke and Leia's father. Spoiled!

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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