'Anytime' TV makes it risky to chat about your show

October 22, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN REPORTER

Conversations about television -- usually no-fail ice breakers -- are becoming trickier than discussing politics with your mother-in-law. And forget those chats by the water cooler about last night's hit TV show.

Spoil the ending of an episode of Fox's 24 for your boss? Watch your career trickle away. Ruin your girlfriend's plans to watch Season 3 of The Sopranos in one weekend? Kiss the relationship goodbye.

Armed with iPods, cell phones, laptops, DVDs, on-demand cable and, of course, TiVo (the ultimate tool for personalized viewing), TV fans are clicking onto shows whenever they please. Which is wreaking havoc with the how-tos of discussing television.

So use caution when blurting out that juicy tidbit about last night's hot new show; your friends may not thank you for it. The new etiquette of television chatter demands sensitivity, timing -- and a variety of early warning systems. TV blogs and Web sites, including televisionwithoutpity.com, typically carry "spoiler alerts" that signal to browsers that the content or ending of a show is about to be revealed.

"The only thing we all watch at once nowadays is the Super Bowl," says Jeff Davidson, who lives in Perryville and writes a column for the paparazzi Web site TMZ.com. "I'm betting we'll see more of the 'on demand' and previewing. There are always going to be a group of people who want to 'see it first.' "

Indeed this season, fans of HBO's The Wire have been able to view the show through the network's On Demand service six days before it airs, completely upending its traditional roll-out. (The buzz-making strategy backfired for HBO last week when bootleggers began offering downloadable versions to anyone who would pay, and not-yet-aired plot developments began leaking out.)

But even if you're not first to see a show, no worries. On CBS.com, you can click on full episodes of Shark or The Unit. On NBC's Web site, fans of The Biggest Loser are being asked, "Miss the premiere? Watch the full episode online!" ABC's site offers reruns of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Lost.

Viewing options are so bountiful that Abe Novick, a senior vice president at Eisner Communications, an advertising and marketing firm in Baltimore that buys TV ads, was cruising the Web recently and stumbled on the pilot episode of Kidnapped on NBC's site before it had even aired.

"I was waiting for it to be just 60 seconds of a teaser, but it just kept going," he says. "It totally blew me away. Now I'm able to watch things that usually you'd have to wait and watch on TV during the season. Rather than just watch it on the programmers' schedule, I was able to watch it on mine. This gives me a whole new funhouse to play around in. It's all very cool."

No wonder people don't know how much to say or when to say it when talking to each other about any given program.

"I find myself saying, 'Don't tell me the ending!' 'Don't tell me what happens!' " says Lina Shanklin, a film producer and director whose credits include One of Those Nights (1997) and who got hooked up to a TiVo digital video recorder only a month ago.

For Shanklin, discussions of favored television fare have been radically affected by the impact of new technology on viewing habits. "My friend and her 20-plus-year-old kids do 24 marathons some weekends," Shanklin says. "So my conversations now include, not 'next-day instant talk,' but me asking others the full plots of series I'd only caught a couple of programs of."

Mark Ettlinger, a Toronto resident who manages real-estate properties, simply takes care to alert his friends if he is about to mention a telling detail. An avid fan of ABC's Lost, a show about the travails of marooned airplane passengers, he has encouraged several friends to watch the series. But not all those who become hooked watch it at once, so that their conversations and e-mails messages are often cautious. Ettlinger sometimes receives messages "telling me not to discuss a certain show."

On other occasions, he might send a text message to friends "urging them not to miss a great episode that will air that night," without, of course, spilling the beans.

Many viewers point to Fox's 24 as the ultimate example of a popular show trapped in the technology time warp. "I do my best not to tell anyone what happens on that show," says Rory O'Connor, a former TV news producer based in New York who co-founded The Global Center, an educational foundation. "Although in general it appears that Jack Bauer single-handedly saves the world from utter destruction at the end of each show, so I don't know how much there really is to give away there."

What's vanished in all of this, some say, is the tribal experience of the same show being seen by millions of people simultaneously, and of sharing that experience with colleagues and friends as soon as possible.

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