Private Viewing: Is web chatter spoiling good storytelling on film and TV?

Dr Who's River Song (Alex Kingston) understood that knowing the ending of a story was dangerous and

Dr Who's River Song (Alex Kingston) understood that knowing the ending of a story was dangerous and so refused to tell The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) how their story would end. Netflix would happily now reveal that ending. - Credit: BBC

Arts editor Andrew Clarke is fuming that web-based film and TV provider Netflix is going to make sure we all know whodunnit

In order to enjoy the last season of Game of Thrones Arts Editor Andrew Clarke had to work hard to a

In order to enjoy the last season of Game of Thrones Arts Editor Andrew Clarke had to work hard to avoid plot spoilers online. Pictured Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Rory McCann as The Hound. - Credit: PA

One of the most memorable catchphrases in Doctor Who in recent years was delivered by Alex Kingston as the time-travelling River Song. Privileged to know the Doctor’s future, she was forced to keep his enthusiastic inquiries in check with a single word: “Spoilers”.

Delivered with a smile and a twinkle in the eye, she knew that knowing how events turn out is rarely a good thing.

Unhappily, this essential piece of dramatic information seems to have been lost on the web-based film and television channel Netflix which has launched a new interactive website Spoil Yourself which seeks to tell you the twists and all the surprises contained in film and TV programmes before you watch them. The reason for launching this is hard to fathom. Obviously it feels there is some financial advantage in pre-empting the big reveal before people watch a film but it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to avail themselves of this service.

If The Usual Suspects and or The Sixth Sense were new films, this new Netflix website would be making sure you knew what happened before you watched it. Presumably it would have gleefully revealed the twist at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In an effort to promote this website Netflix has commissioned a new survey to mark its new service. The marketing blurb breathlessly tells us: “Some secrets are too good to keep.” My answer would be: “No, keep them.” The Netflix survey has claimed that 21% of Americans think it is acceptable to share a surprise ending immediately after they have seen a film or a TV series has just aired. A mind-blowing 94% claim that knowing the ending of a film or TV series would not put them off watching it.

While it may not put me off watching the very best films and TV I would certainly regard it as a crime against storytelling. It’s the visual equivalent of buying a novel, reading the first page and then jumping to the last chapter.

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An important part of storytelling, particularly in crime dramas and espionage thrillers, is the role of the red herring, Misdirection can be an effective and engaging way of keeping an audience’s interest and the reveal when it happens can be thrilling. How many times have you talked with friends after an evening out at the cinema and have said: “Wow, that was great. I never saw that coming?” Spoilers rob you of that sense of exhilaration. Instead of wondering what is going to happen next, you are wondering how it is going to happen. The sense of engagement is not the same.

Part of the problem with spoilers is the way we view material today. Television is no longer just watched live. Multiple channels and busy lives means that a lot of television is now watched on catch-up or from recordings. I spent most of the first part of this year dodging revelations about the latest series of Game of Thrones until I had caught up.

The rise of social media also means there are many more ways for the cat to be let out of the bag. In the past, the viewing public didn’t have a platform to publish their opinions about their favourites movies but Twitter, Facebook and personal websites has given them the ability to broadcast to the world. As a result spoilers have tumbled out like boulders in an avalanche.

Some TV series like The Fall with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan have tackled this problem head-on by making the creative decision to reveal the identity of the serial killer early on and incorporating that knowledge into the storytelling structure. But you wouldn’t want to do that with every detective drama.

In the past, there has been a tacit agreement between audiences not to reveal the surprise endings of films. This is something we need to get back to. Forums can be set up where audiences in the know can discuss the endings of films or revelations in on-going TV series without that information being released onto the wider web.

The time has come to jealously guard our right to be surprised. I hate the fact that all the developments in a soap opera storyline are leaked before the episode airs. Plot developments are used as marketing materials. They shouldn’t be. If a plane drops on Albert Square it should be as much of a surprise to the viewer as it is to the characters. It shouldn’t be talked about for weeks beforehand.

If a series develops a reputation for good stories and for delivering good twists then it will develop a strong following anyway. In any event word-of-mouth is still the best advertising. “Watch this, it’s brilliant,” gets you in front of the screen without spoiling anything.