Okay, just kidding: I don’t actually know the ending of the story I’m about to tell you. But if I were a contestant in, say, The Voice or The Bachelorette, we might have some problems. Because a legal case currently unfolding in California has the potential to curtail the ability of TV viewers to read spoilers about some of their favourite reality shows.
Though if the TV producers bringing the case succeed in squelching online chatter, they might end up shooting themselves in the foot. (Which, come to think of it, sounds like a cool idea for a reality show.)
Since 2009, a Texas resident by the name of Stephen Carbone has been exhaustively chronicling ABC’s 10-year-old The Bachelor and its spinoffs, The Bachelorette and Bachelor Pad, at his website RealitySteve.com. His fans (more than 41,000 Twitter followers) read him daily for both production minutiae and “spoilers” – plot points he reveals, sometimes months in advance of their on-air revelations. By dint of his reporting, he’s become an expert source, tapped by other media outlets when they produce stories on the genre.
But now he’s fighting for his livelihood, threatened by a lawsuit backed by the multibillion-dollar broadcaster ABC and its program supplier Warner Bros. Television.
Last December, Bachelor producers filed suit against Carbone, alleging that he attempted to induce contestants or staff into breaking non-disclosure agreements they’d signed as a condition of appearing in or working on the show. He has denied the charges, and is trying to block the producers’ attempt to have the case heard in California rather than Texas.
The issue in question is of “tortious interference” – that is, damaging a contractual relationship the plaintiff has with a third party. In Carbone’s case, he is alleged to have offered money to tipsters, as much as $2,500. It’s the same law that almost held back journalists at 60 Minutes from airing their explosive 1995 report about the tobacco industry based on documents provided by the whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.
So, okay, the question of whether Emily Maynard, the perky Bachelorette whose season is now in production, winds up with Ryan or Chris or Luke or nobody is clearly of less consequence than which toxins Brown & Williamson was inserting into their cigarettes. And, true, most reporters rightly look down their noses at the practice of paying sources, as Carbone is alleged to have done.
But that doesn’t mean he and his work aren’t worth defending, especially when so much “entertainment reporting” is stage-managed nonsense in which “exclusives” are parcelled out to friendly outlets like doggy treats. The entertainment-industrial complex doesn’t even recognize the harm it’s doing to itself: While the official Bachelor blog is a slick and soulless piece of corporate piffle with a little over 2,000 Facebook fans, Carbone’s site boasts about 21,000 fans.
Furthermore, there’s no proof that spoilers actually spoil anything.
“It’s kind of a preposterous position that they’re taking,” Brad Kizzia of the Dallas-based law firm Brown Fox Kizzia & Johnson said when we spoke on Tuesday. “They’re not going to be able to show any reduction in viewership based upon a spoiler that Mr. Carbone may have published about it.
“I submit to you that what Mr. Carbone does enhances the viewership, if anything.”
Is that true? Over the weekend, I corresponded with Kari Sanders, a 23-year-old medical office assistant living in Dequincy, La. who has been watching The Bachelor for the past four years. She and other members of the self-proclaimed Bachelor Nation were busy tweeting each other in celebration of Sunday’s 10th anniversary of the show’s first season. “I visit realitysteve EVERY DAY for the latest bachelor/bachelorette news. I get VERY invested into the series!” she wrote in an e-mail.
Carbone’s site, she insisted, “doesn't spoil my enjoyment at all. It actually makes me want to watch it even more! It's fun seeing how things will happen before they happen.”
Plot may be overrated: Last weekend, theatres across North America were clogged with giddy fans of The Hunger Games, many of whom had read the books and knew how the film would unfold. Some of the most financially successful movie franchises in history were built on bestsellers: The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter.
So when the producers of a show like The Bachelor argue that they’re financially harmed by the publication of plot points, they may just be displaying their own insecurity over the quality of their work because they don’t trust that the show has other merits.
And insecurity leads to bullying. “I think the plaintiffs in this case would like to see Mr. Carbone and people like him put out of business,” Kizzia said, “and anyone else that might be thinking about providing information to him, or someone like him, to intimidate him into not doing so.”