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TV spoilers are becoming unavoidable

More opportunities than ever for devotees to give away the plot

Heidi Cron downloaded “Downton Abbey” before it aired in the United States.

EVAN MCGLINN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Heidi Cron downloaded “Downton Abbey” before it aired in the United States.

Heidi Cron is living in a prison of her own making. In the grip of a “Downton Abbey” obsession, she downloaded season three from the UK this fall. She got her fix of Lady Mary, Mr. Bates, and the Dowager Countess, but because the show hasn’t started its new season here, her delicious knowledge came at a price.

“My friends act like I have a communicable disease,” said Cron, an interior designer from Somerville who wishes the Jan. 6 season premiere would arrive already so she would have someone to discuss the show with. “It’s so goofy. It’s only TV.”

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Only? Americans ages 15 and over spend more time with on-screen characters than they do socializing with friends, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, racking up 2.8 hours a day of TV time in 2011, compared with 45 minutes a day of real-people time. And since fewer Americans watch shows when they air, there may be no social infraction worse than revealing whether Brody on “Homeland” is a terrorist, or who got eliminated on “The Voice.”

The problem has been building for years, but the obsession with immediately sharing everything we know on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites means that what happens on TV doesn’t stay on TV.

“The spoiler alert situation is out of control,” TV critic David Bianculli observed.

He increasingly finds himself on the receiving end of fans’ ire for mentioning plot points for shows that ended a decade earlier. “What’s the statute of limitations?” asked Bianculli, the founder of TVWorthWatching.com. “ ‘Citizen Kane’? The New Testament?”

But what’s a viewer to do? While there’s no greater treat than the TV binge — watching multiple seasons of “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” in one lost weekend — we’re suffering from a perfect storm of TV-related stress. The growing backlog of must-watch series has combined with greater flexibility of when and how we watch, and ever more media outlets on which to learn what we can’t unlearn.

AFP/Getty Images

Maggie Smith plays Violet, dowager countess of Grantham, on “Downton Abbey.” Some fans downloaded the new season as it aired in Britain, before its US premiere.

‘As much as people want to know what’s going to happen in a show, they don’t want to know.’

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In 1989, when Jerry Seinfeld recorded the Mets game to watch later in the pilot episode of “Seinfeld,” he had only the ringing phone to fear. “If you know what happened in the Mets game don’t tell me,” he implores the caller. “I taped it.”

Today’s spoilers don’t just come through the phone — or by neighbor, as they did for Seinfeld, when Kramer spilled the beans. They waft in through the air itself, via Twitter or Facebook, Gmail or text. To be behind in a popular series even by 10 minutes is to live in a booby-trapped world. Is the Terry Gross interview with “Sons of Anarchy’s” Katey Sagal safe to listen to? What about the fashion story in Vanity Fair featuring “Mad Men’s” Jessica Paré?

So many people now watch shows after they have aired — for some dramas, half the audience delays viewing — that in 2008, Nielsen began counting in its ratings shows watched up to three days later, said Patricia McDonough, a Nielsen senior vice president for insights and analysis.

Last year, the program providers began lobbying advertisers to look at viewership numbers a whole week after a show aired to assess the size of a show’s audience, said McDonough.

But even seven days may be too short, as there’s growing interest among Nielsen’s client companies to have shows watched even years later count toward commercial audiences (as long as current commercials are inserted into older airings), she said.

But delayed viewing is now also a game of minutes, as Brian Halligan, a local deejay, has learned. He’s in the “bad habit” of reading his Twitter feed while watching shows he has recorded, he said, “and if I’m behind by even half an hour, something will show up that spoils it.”

Matt Roush, senior critic at TV Guide Magazine, says he can’t live tweet a show he’s watching in New York for fear of ruining it for West Coast viewers. “As much as people want to know what’s going to happen in a show, they don’t want to know — they don’t want the surprise spoiled.”

It’s a cruel trick of progress. Even as it gets easier to watch shows at your own convenience, the threat of having your show spoiled amps up the pressure to watch it in real time.

In Dorchester, Adam Beddie hears the ticking clock of the entertainment world.

“If you wait too long, everything is given away,” said Beddie, a salesman at Turtle, a Newbury Street boutique.

He figures he’s got a day or two, and then if he hasn’t watched “Revenge” or “American Horror Story,” two favorites, he puts himself in modern-day isolation. “I have to stay away from social media.”

But some people can’t stop themselves from learning what’s going to happen, even if they know they’ll hate themselves in the morning. “It’s like eating a big bag of candy corn,” said Amy Osborne, a public and community services administrator for the Massachusetts Bar Association. “It tastes so good, then five minutes later you want to throw up.”

Painful though spoilers may be, they’re a good problem to have. Before shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” came along, nighttime programs were episodic and hence couldn’t be spoiled, said Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. “You can’t ruin an episode of ‘Mr. Ed.’ ”

In 2012, fear of spoilers has become such a part of the culture that The New Yorker has run not one but two “spoiler alert” cartoons. (In one, a doctor in scrubs is about to deliver news to a woman in a hospital waiting room. “Spoiler alert,” he says.)

Meanwhile, even the Obamas are reportedly in danger of becoming walking spoilers. According to a report in Britain’s Sun newspaper, Michelle Obama “pulled a few strings” and scored season three of “Downton Abbey” early.

“Obviously we hope they keep the spoilers to themselves,” the Sun’s source told the paper, “as our US fans may not know about . . . well, you know what!”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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