It would probably be difficult for anyone to beat my spoiler story. It occurred on February 22, 1980. Ring a bell?
I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. I came home, switched on the television, and watched something mindless. During a commercial break, a news reader came on and said, “The U.S. defeats Russia in hockey. Film at 11.”
After I trashed the apartment in anger, I realized I should never have turned on the TV at all. Here was perhaps the biggest upset in Olympic history — the Americans stunning the heavily favored Soviets at Lake Placid — and the experience of watching the drama unfold was ruined for me.
When Al Michaels exclaimed, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” I certainly did, because unfortunately, I had been tipped off beforehand.
As the Beijing Olympics approach, it's obvious that times have changed a great deal since 1980. Spoilers are more insidious than ever, because there is more media with which to deliver them.
“Because of the time difference, a lot of morning events in China will be televised live in prime time here,” notes Phil Rosenthal, who writes a media column for the Chicago Tribune. “I think those who want to be kept in the dark on the rest will have to work very hard to avoid knowing what's happened because information is so much more pervasive. News is everywhere and we're not even aware we're getting it some of the time.
“It's on the home page of your computer, in your e-mail, on your mobile phone, in elevators, on top of taxi cabs, on billboards and the sides of buildings. You think you're watching a show that has no connection to the Olympics and information will scroll across the bottom of the screen. We pick up a lot of information through osmosis, and I think the only time you're truly aware of just how much is when you're trying to avoid it.”
When it's 7 a.m. in China...
One of the obvious ways to avoid spoilers is to televise events live. In the case of Beijing and the United States, there's a pretty significant time difference that gets in the way (12-hour difference to New York, 15 hours to Los Angeles). A live event that's taking place in what's prime evening time for China would have to air at an eye-scorchingly early hour in the U.S.
In fact, this year a good deal of the Summer Games will be shown live — an estimated 2,900 live hours across several platforms — so spoilers will only be an issue to certain parts of the country.
“It’s live on the East Coast and in the Central time zone, which is roughly 81 to 82 percent of all the households in the United States,” said Dick Ebersol, NBC Sports and Olympics chairman. “Historically, we have always shown the Olympics on tape on the West Coast. And the majority of viewers have repeatedly told us that the vast majority of them, well in excess of 80 percent, want to see the Olympics when they’re available to see the Olympics.
“They don’t want to see the key events of the day happening at 4 or 5 o’clock their time. They want to get home and watch them.”
Turn off that radio! Kill that Blackberry!
Of course, on the way home, some of those poor folks will have to make sure and turn their car radios off, ignore cell-phone or Blackberry alerts, and steer clear of any local newscasts when they finally do get home.
“The magic of TiVo helps me avoid knowing a result in advance,” he said. “I can take my wife out to dinner the night of a USC football game on the road, avoiding turning on the radio or sitting in a bar equipped with a TV set, then watch when I get home — past midnight if necessary.”
There is always one group that spoils the fun. In this case, it might be advertisers. It’s possible that spoilers might not spoil their spoils.
“If you know something special is going to happen, you tune in,” explained the Tribune's Rosenthal. “All viewing is based on expectation. When a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, you call your friends and the audience grows. If you know it's a no-hitter, you lose the suspense but you know it's an event and you want to see how it plays out.
“There are two problems with spoilers, in terms of advertisers: One, you may time-shift a little and fast-forward past their ads in a way you wouldn't if you have to watch live to get the result and, two, if you learn the result early and it isn't that interesting, you may skip the telecast altogether.”
Fans concerned about spoilers can always pray that everything unfolds exactly as predicted: Michael Phelps wins eight gold medals; the Americans retake the gold in basketball; one from the trio of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell or Tyson Gay will win the 100 meters; and the Chinese government’s firewall will stay up until after the Closing Ceremonies.
Actually, maybe the Chinese have had the remedy for spoilers all along: Don’t let any information out at all.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.