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Image: "Lost" finale
The series finale of "Lost" was one of the most highly anticipated and most discussed endings, but some viewers are still avoiding spoilers.
TODAY contributor
updated 11/29/2010 7:39:02 PM ET 2010-11-30T00:39:02

Spoiler alert!

It was: A sled. All a dream. The mistress did it. She’s a man. The suicide was a fake. He hallucinated the whole thing. He was dead all along. He was dead all along and didn’t know it. The limp is a fake.

There you go: Some of television and film’s great reveals, all spoiled for you in one neat package. As John Hodgman might say on “The Daily Show,” you’re welcome.

What? No eternal gratitude? Welcome to the club. Spoilers are one of the most divisive issues among pop-culture fans. To know, or not to know, that is the question. And once you do know, to share or not to share?

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Fans often feel they have a duty to both know and share what comes up on their favorite series before they even air. But there are just as many fans sticking their fingers in their ears, singing “la la la” to avoid any hint of spoilers.

That is, in fact, exactly what some people do. “Then I realize I really do want (the spoilers anyway and ask about them repeatedly,” said Chris Sigafoos of Tacoma, Wash.

Story: How do you avoid TV and movie spoilers?

A difficult task
That’s the push-pull of spoilers, and TV fans have it particularly hard thanks to the sheer volume of episodes and options. It’s hard to keep secrets these days, thanks to the Internet’s omnipresence. Fans and TV producers have both more and less control about what ultimately leaks over the fate of a series’ plot or characters. And once the story is out there, it takes more self-control than most have not to learn about the upcoming reveals.

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“It’s much harder to keep spoilers under wraps these days,” said Jim Colucci, deputy editor of CBS Watch magazine. “You sneeze and people around the world know about it in 10 seconds. The Internet is not only a way of disseminating information, it’s this content-demanding monster and people are always looking for things to tweet and Facebook.”

Some producers get down and dirty about controlling spoiler information. Colucci said “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner “puts the fear of God into his actors” about revealing any details, something Weiner learned from his days at “The Sopranos.”

That attitude didn’t prevent leaks in The New York Times this past July, when a preview article of the show’s fourth season dropped plot advances such as Betty Draper’s remarriage. In response, Weiner told The Hollywood Reporter that he was “shocked” by the revelations, adding that “you have to be covered in the press, but there’s no enforcement — it’s a gentlemen’s agreement (not to reveal details).”

Other producers, such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s” Neal Baer, accept that some kind of spoiler leakage is inevitable — so he tweets multiple times each day to control what gets out.

“There’s all kinds of ways people get information — agents, managers,” he said. “There’s always someone on the inside willing to sell their soul.”

That said, he has joked about purposefully tossing out bad intel, like suggesting that Lady Gaga would be appearing on “SVU.” “Just to see what the reaction would be,” he chuckled. He won’t do it, though: “That would be bad karma.”

The truth is out there
Karma’s one thing. The wrath of fans would be another should producers start trying to poison the well.

“I can tell you I’d be out of there so fast if I thought I was being lied to,” said Alice Wasserstein of Lowell, Mass. “You have to believe there’s some kind of grain of truth to what’s being said, even if it is on the Internet.”

The Internet’s ability to connect TV fans with one another helps feed their love/hate relationship with the shows, and there are entire websites that devote themselves to spoiler coverage, like SpoilerTV.com and Spoilerfix.com. But those mainly help fans who actively seek out season or series finales. Most spoilage is the unwanted kind, and can sneak up on unsuspecting fans.

“I still haven’t seen the end of ‘Lost,’ ” said Richard Adams of Austin, Texas, “but there are so many little viral videos and discussions and photo montages that I think I know what happened ... without even seeing the show!”

Fair game
Reality shows deal with a different sort of problem: Life goes on for the subjects after the cameras leave. Producer Leslie Greif oversees a reality slate that includes A&E’s “Gene Simmons: Family Jewels,” and back in 2007 had a problem when photos of the star (and partner Shannon Tweed) undergoing facelift surgery appeared on the web weeks before the relevant episodes aired.

“We’re fighting TMZ, fighting the news — if you really wanted to see what Gene and Shannon looked like after surgery, well, they’d already been in public,” he said. “By the time it gets to television, two or three chapters of a reality show could have aired.”

Fans learn quickly that if they don’t watch a show in real time, they’re fair game for unexpected spoilers — and nearly have to go into a media blackout.

Mindy Graber of Abingdon, Md., said, “If it is something that I absolutely do not want ruined, I avoid entertainment type of programs, don’t read my friends’ Facebook posts and turn the radio channel during those type of discussions until I have watched the show.”

Producers are sympathetic with fans who want to learn the truth in their own time. “People who like spoilers are the ones who want to unwrap their gifts early to see what they’re getting on Christmas Day,” said “The Walking Dead” producer Gale Ann Hurd. “There’s an excitement to know something before it is announced. It’s very difficult for tried and true fans to ignore a TV show spoiler that’s been illegally posted on the Internet.”

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Going the distance
Spoilers have come a long way, baby. Back in 1980, “Dallas” kept its “who shot J.R.” cliffhanger a secret for months without a single leak. (Reportedly, multiple versions of the reveal were filmed in case.) Later the show filmed a faux soap commercial to hide the shocking return of a presumed-dead Bobby Ewing. More recently, Baer — a former writer and executive producer on “ER” — said that when George Clooney returned for a single episode in 2000, they kept the footage in a refrigerator and didn’t tell even the network until the last minute.

It’s hard to imagine those big secrets going completely unknown today, but the truth is that no reveal is going to draw the kind of numbers “Dallas” did for the J.R. shooting — 350 million people worldwide put their lives on hold to learn the truth.

Still, producers know that a good juicy secret will draw in fans, and most know when and how to keep a vow of silence — even in the most challenging of circumstances.

Todd Lieberman, executive producer for “Detroit 1-8-7,” recalled a recent episode of his series that sparked major discussion among fans — and his family: “Our main character, Fitch, goes up to this guy in a restaurant and says, ‘If you really knew what happened to me in New York, you’d be crapping your pants right now.’ He walks out, episode ends,” Lieberman said. “The moment that happened, my mom called, my sister called, and I got five e-mails: ‘What happened in New York?’ When I said I couldn’t tell, it made them so angry!

“But,” he added with a laugh, “that made them tune in the next week.”

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