July 18, 2007
Spoilers and Special Release Events: The Case of Harry Potter

C3 Director Joshua Green clued me in to a fascinating conversation taking place over on Bruce Schneier's blog regarding the leak of the final Harry Potter book online, with digital photographs of each page.

The debate is going in both directions. Schneier's take is that this is no big deal and that it does not really equal much of a profit loss. This perspective is that, since the people obsessed with finding a copy just to read it online a few days before it comes out in print will likely buy a copy anyway, and anyone particularly adamant with finding a free copy would have either not read it at all otherwise or borrowed a copy from someone else.

But, of course, this is also about scheduling and real-time deployment of content. The same question gets raised for television as we move more toward a non-linear method of television watching, with DVRs and television shows on DVD. As I wrote about last October, television is no longer the consensus narrative it once was because even if people watch the same series, they may be on a different season.

At the time, I wrote:

This significant cultural shift shows how the model of consensus television and water cooler discussion is deteriorating even more. Not only do you have niche programming splitting the audience into increasingly smaller sizes, you also have the added complication that, of the shows that large numbers of people do watch, now they aren't necessarily watching them at the same time. This "spoiler anxiety" is very real and something I see happen on a very regular basis among my friends. You can never assume what season someone is on these days, even if they are a professed fan of a particular television show.

And, while I agree with Schneier's position that the move probably didn't really cost the Harry Potter franchise anything, there still has to be concerns about accidentally being spoiled (see, for instance, Henry Jenkins' chapter on Survivor spoiler communities in Convergence Culture).

The move away from watching in real-time, or according to a linear schedule, is still complicated by plot surprises intended to shock people. Some of the commenters on Schneier's post point out that, while the early release does nothing to endanger the Harry Potter profit model, there still has to be concern among those fans who wanted to be surprise and now have to be wary about reading their usual fan Web sites and forums, for fear that a spoiler might show up unannounced.

I've also explored this issue to some degree with soaps, particularly the differences between spoilers and teasers, and how destructive spoilers can sometimes be to the fan experience, especially when members of fan communities do not observe the proper protocol of warning someone about a spoiler contained in a particular message.

I think Schneier is right that this won't cost any sales and that, if anything, it will increase the buzz. On the other hand, I also think it's important to keep in mind that the early release is most problematic among the fan community who wanted to treat this like a big event unveiling and who now feel endangered by the leak.

But those types of event-based releases of media products will increasingly face this dilemma, as the whole notion of time-specificity in regard to viewership becomes increasingly challenged.