Hardly anything happens in most episodes of Mad Men, but people are desperate to find out what it is. The AMC period drama, which returns for a sixth season on April 7, is famous for the refusal of creator Matthew Weiner to allow any “spoilers,” or advance information about the stories. “I haven’t worked on a show where the precautions against spoilers were as great as those on Mad Men,” says editor Leo Trombetta, who shared an Emmy nomination for his work on the show. The network doesn’t even reveal what year the season will be taking place in, and Trombetta says Weiner asks actors “that they not discuss their part or even the name of their character with anyone, including their agents.” But fans still look for whatever they can get: a promotional poster for season six, showing Jon Hamm’s Don Draper with a man who looks exactly like him, had the Internet arguing about whether this was a clue to the plot of the season or just a piece of symbolism.
Spoilers are usually thought of as something fans are anxious to avoid; there were stories about North American watchers of Downton Abbey being petrified of talking to people who had seen the show in the U.K. But other people actively search for spoilers online, and have been doing so for as long as the Internet has existed. Andy Page, who runs Spoiler TV and used to have a Lost spoiler page, says his readers “couldn’t wait to see clues from upcoming episodes such as scripts and set photos.” Hard-core fans want details “about things such as a major character death.”
It’s not just for serialized dramas. Leaks from reality shows have become so popular that the producers of The Bachelor filed two lawsuits against a spoiler collector, Steve Carbone, for interviewing ex-contestants and finding out who had been eliminated. And the sitcom The Big Bang Theory has fans who post summaries of the jokes they heard at live tapings.
TV insiders think viewers cheat themselves by looking for spoilers. “A large part of the enjoyment for the viewer is not knowing what will happen to each of the characters as the season progresses,” Trombetta says. But having this information may be a thrill for fans. The author of the now-defunct spoiler site Spoiler Fix, a Canadian named Isabelle who doesn’t use her last name in articles “just so that spoiler fans don’t hunt me down,” says that the process was “a sort of fun hide-and-seek game, or a type of hunt or chase.” And in the age of the Internet, it’s a game anyone can play: things that would once have been available only to show-business insiders, like casting information and script pages for auditions, are often posted online, where people can mine them for hints of stories to come.
That means it’s a challenge for producers to keep their work private before it airs. One way is to film mostly indoors. “Shows that don’t have external filming are quite tough to get spoilers for,” Page explains, and Mad Men is an example: most of the show is filmed in a studio, but when it shot in Hawaii for part of an upcoming episode, unauthorized photos leaked out. Even in the studio, Weiner has found new ways of limiting the knowledge of outsiders, even changing the names in scripts when actors audition. “The scene may be a conversation between their character and a man named Frank,” Trombetta explains, “but it won’t be until they get the part that they’ll discover that ‘Frank’ was actually Roger Sterling or Don Draper.”
That kind of clamping down on spoilers may make fans want them more. “Withholding information can definitely help something go viral,” explains Jonah Berger, author of the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, and Mad Men may prove it: though the show, unlike Breaking Bad or True Blood, has few big twists, Weiner’s crackdown has turned every piece of official information into news, even photos with no relevance to the plot. This may be a sign of, as Trombetta puts it, “how hungry fans are for even the tiniest scrap of information,” but spoiler fans say they’re not trying to ruin the shows. “Having run the Lost site and Spoiler TV since 2005,” Page says, “I’ve still yet to meet anyone who after reading a spoiler did not watch the next episode.”