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TELEVISION & RADIO

Wait, don't tell me what happens

With so many viewing options and availability, the TV talk around the water cooler can be a little dicey these days.

October 27, 2006|Nick Madigan | Baltimore Sun

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, cellphones, 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 discussions about television.

The new etiquette of television chatter demands sensitivity, timing -- and a variety of early warning systems. Some TV blogs and websites, including televisionwithoutpity.com, are even carrying "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 writes a column for the paparazzi website TMZ.com. "I'm betting we'll see more of the 'on demand' and previewing. There is always going to be a group of people who want to 'see it first.' "

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 "Smith," "Shark" or "The Unit."

On NBC's website, fans of "The Biggest Loser" are being asked, "Miss the premiere? Watch the full episode online!"

ABC's site offers reruns of shows such as "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 onto 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 when talking 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 who recently got a TiVo digital video recorder.

Mark Ettlinger of Toronto alerts his friends if he is about to mention a telling detail. An avid fan of ABC's "Lost," a show about marooned airplane passengers, he has encouraged friends to watch the series. But not all those who become hooked watch it at once, so their conversations and e-mail 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," 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. "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.

"My experience is that there are fewer and fewer 'water cooler' shows now than there used to be, precisely because there is so much fragmentation," says O'Connor. "People just aren't watching the same stuff anymore with the same degree of regularity and universality."

But John Marino, a public relations executive in New York, insists the morning-after TV dissection is not entirely dead.

"In many respects the water-cooler chats really help keep 'live' TV as popular as it is," he says. "People hate to come in the office and miss out on 'The Sopranos' chatter or find out who was kicked off 'Survivor' the night before."

Many viewers, Marino says, still want to watch shows when they are first broadcast.

"The big shows that get discussed at the water cooler or during lunch are usually not made available in advance," he says. "In most cases putting a show on-demand a week prior to airing is used more as a marketing tool."

In an era when everyone seems too busy to sit still for very long, the new technology also can bring people together, suggests John Mammoser, a comedy writer.

Recently, he sat in a sports bar in Santa Monica, where a screen showed the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills in full battle.

"I was text messaging with a friend of mine who was TiVo-ing a football game as I was watching it live," Mammoser recalls. "He got home 30 minutes after the start, so was catching up gradually during commercials. He finally text'd me when he was in 'real time' so we could commiserate on how sloppy the Buffalo Bills looked."

(The Jets won, 28-20.)

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