News Column

Twitter Plays the Great Spoiler at Olympics

July 30, 2012

John Timpane

This scene was enacted in millions of American homes over the weekend:

Family member (comes in, thumbs working his/her mobile phone): "Too bad Michael Phelps lost, huh?"

Everyone in the house (media-dark so they can watch the evening's delayed Olympics broadcast): "WHY DID YOU TELL ME??????"

Happened at my place. You?

This Olympics delay thing. It's put on brutal display the big, and I mean big, disconnect between network TV and the Web.

If you're Web-linked (and who isn't?) and want to come fresh to the delayed broadcasts -- if you want the surprise of televised sport at all -- you just about have to go on a Twitter timeout. Facebook fast. Web wipeout. Not even radio news (at least CBS Radio News apologized: "Spoiler alert ...").

TV lives on primetime. NBC has made million-dollar promises to sponsors, who've shelled out big bucks for mega-eyeball action.

Twitter? Facebook? The Web? Second-by-second, minute-by-minute, every second, every minute. News gets out as fast as you can say, "140 characters." It's everywhere. And you can't stop it.

The Web's way ahead. Has been for a while now. The death of Michael Jackson; the Haitian earthquake: the Japan tsunami; the Chinese quakes -- Twitter's there first, Facebook close second.

That's why, all over the Web, thoughtful venues are doing what this local ABC Web article did: "Please be advised: this story contains results from the Games of the XXX Olympiad, in London, England. This event may not have aired yet. If you wish to not know the results, do not click through to this article." Forgive the split infinitive; they're being nice. As of Monday morning, the Google search "spoiler alert" Olympics drew 1.75 million results.

Just in the first weekend, I encountered several people, frustrated that some unwitting soul had told them, oh, I don't know, who won the women's bicycle road race. Groans! Whyyyyy?

For the record, this isn't new. In the mid-1970s, VCRs (remember them? the letters stood for videocassette recorder . . . remember cassettes? anybody?) became widely available. It wasn't long before millions were timing recordings and watching them later, at their leisure. As of 2012, "timeshifting" has become central. Many of us watch more recorded material than screen-fresh.

Timeshifting, however, gave birth to a new human behavior: The warning "I am recording [favorite show]; don't tell me what happens." In the middle of conversations about, let's say, the last episode of The Sopranos, somebody'd stick fingers in ears and go, "Nyanyanyanya" or cry out, "Shut up! Have you no sense of decency?"

First time I ever saw this was when my brother-in-law, Phil, dementedly devoted fan of all Chicago sports, and living in Manhattan, sternly warned us all not to discuss (1) the 1984 National League Playoffs, until he watched them, and then (2), for years, anything having to do with Michael Jordan. Until he watched it.

Problem is, as Web pundit Jeff Jarvis notes in a fine Huffington Post piece (, you can't control information. Twitter is "a gigantic spoiler machine" on which millions post what they know the moment they know it.

Besides (as Jarvis also notes), if Twitter doesn't spoil it, the next person you meet will lead with, "Big Phelps fail, huh?"

In my house during the recent French Open, I, thanks to Twitter and RSS feeds from various news orgs, played spoiler three straight times, despoiling hot news of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Maria Sharapova. My wife tweets not.

My brother-in-law Phil and my wife both love the fresh, never-can-tell element. That's a lot to lose.

And a lot of people are losing it over these Olympics.

What to do? Easy. Cease to live in the modern world. Use no social media. Talk to no one. Eyes front: Look at no newsstand, no TV crawler. No radio! Get home, take out the earplugs ... but only after you turn on NBC.

And pray to God the guy at the local affiliate doesn't spill before they cut to national.

Good luck with that.

Source: (c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by MCT Information Services

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