How online tools spoil reality show secrets

Hunting down clues for programs like 'Survivor,' 'The Amazing Race,' and 'American Idol,' fans are turning to social media, Google Earth, and other services. Often, they know what happened months ahead of airing.

For the producers of a reality show like "The Amazing Race," the headaches probably don't get much bigger than those caused by the TAR Detectives.

A global, loosely formed group of sleuths dedicated to uncovering and publicly revealing spoilers about TAR, or "The Amazing Race," the detectives have proven what the producers of any number of reality shows have learned: It's nearly impossible to keep what happens during filming a secret from those determined to find out.

And thanks to the growing number of online and social-media tools available, and the vast numbers of people who use them, ferreting out ahead of time what happens on reality shows appears to be getting easier and easier to do.

'The Bachelor' is just one of many reality show whose fans can easily find accurate spoilers online any time they want. ABC

For years, spoiler sites have been great at offering up informed guesses of what might happen--like who will be voted out, or who will perform, on the next episode of shows like "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Bachelor," and the like. But bloodhounds who frequent popular fan sites and forums have shown how easy it is to exploit the fact that these days, widespread use of Twitter and Facebook can lead those who know where to look to all kinds of accurate conclusions about what will happen throughout a season of some of these shows.

"We can actually draw up our own map" of where "The Amazing Race" contestants will go during a forthcoming season, said Boingo, a longtime member of the TAR Detectives. "In fact, we actually have the entire course pretty well laid out."

Boingo, a technology industry professional from Northern California who asked that his real name not be used, is a longtime member of the TAR Detectives and a habitue of the Reality Fan Forum, a site where spoilers about "The Amazing Race" and other reality shows are given prominent play.

He explained that in the early days of "The Amazing Race," those interested in figuring out and disseminating spoilers were limited to keeping an eagle eye on previews for upcoming episodes and using services like Flickr and Photobucket to try to make assumptions based on what little the producers of the show offered up.

But over the years, Boingo explained, a succession of new online tools have made it possible to uncover more and more about what will happen on the show. First services like Google Earth and Google Street View allowed the detectives to figure out where certain buildings shown in previews might be--and therefore, where the show would be heading next.

"The way it worked was that, in previews, you'd [be able] to identify a building behind the contestants," Boingo said, and using Google Earth or Street View, "that would give you a location, and then you could narrow it down to a city, or even a street, and you could glean a lot of information about where the contestants were" going.

More recently, however, it's become harder and harder for producers to keep information about even entire seasons under wraps. For one thing, given the fact that "The Amazing Race" is filmed in public places around the world, it's hard to keep people from tweeting or posting to Facebook that they just saw the show come through their town. "People post, 'Oh, I happened to see a camera crew going by my house,'" Boingo said, "so we knew approximately where racers were...after [filming] but before airing."

And because of Twitter, it's become easy, Boingo said, for TAR Detectives in the Los Angeles area--where the show's producers are based and where it usually starts from--to find tweets from random people about the show's producers and crews getting ready to depart from the airport there and quickly rush out to see where they're headed. "With Twitter, you could just sit there and search for the phrase 'The Amazing Race,'" Boingo said, "and someone would invariably tweet, 'Oh, I just saw [a film] crew, and someone in LA would run to the airport to take pictures of the crew and cast, and track them in real time."

The upshot, Boingo continued, is that by keeping a close eye on social media mentions about the show and about where its crews and cast are spotted, it has become a simple matter for those intent on doing so to track the show's developments almost in real time and piece together a complete map and outline of an upcoming season as much as five or six months before it airs.

'American Idol'
To be sure, "The Amazing Race" is hardly the only reality show whose producers must grapple with a steady flow of spoilers being posted online.

Shows like "Survivor," "The Bachelor," and "American Idol" are also popular among spoiler sites, and in the case of each, it's easy for those who are interested to go online and find out what will happen on the show in the future. Thankfully, most spoiler sites place such information in sub-sections of forums that warn off unwary visitors with language like "Spoiler Alert" and red text, or all-capital letters. This usually makes it possible for people to visit fan sites to read about current episodes without discovering unwanted information about what will happen on as-yet unaired episodes.

"Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" are broadcast by CNET parent company CBS. An "Amazing Race" publicist at CBS did not return a call and e-mail from CNET.

For those particularly adept at collecting spoiler information, the news often comes from a mix of sources, and being savvy at both social media and other online tools and old-fashioned good source development may be crucial to being king of the spoilers hill.

According to M.J. Santilli, who runs the "American Idol" fan site MJ's Big Blog, a key to uncovering the identities of contestants on an upcoming season is mixing some well-informed tips about who has tried out for the show with clever detective work on Twitter and Facebook.

Santilli explained that by following known would-be "Idol" contestants on Twitter or friending them on Facebook, it's often possible to find out which have made it on to the show through those people's less than stealthy posts, or by putting two and two together from things they might say on one social media site or another, or by following their friends and seeing what they have to say.

According to Michael Slezak, a senior editor at TVLine.com, it can be nearly impossible to keep a lid on what will happen on reality shows, in large part given how many people are involved. "I think when you're putting together a show the size of any of these franchises," Slezak said, "it requires a lot of staffing of people, and some freelance types. I think it's just hard to contain that much information when you're dealing with that" many people.

Of course, while most reality show fans want to maintain the mystery of what will happen on their favorite programs, there are clearly enough who savor spoilers to make sites that cater to that desire profitable. "Spoiler sites are dealing with a hard core group of fans [who go] on the Internet and seek out information about the shows," Slezak said. "Some people just like to know what's going to happen."

That's a notion to which Reality Steve, one of the leading purveyors of spoiler information about ABC's "The Bachelor," clearly subscribes. And even though Reality Steve, whose real name is Steve Carbone, said he gets most of his "Bachelor" spoiler information from inside sources who are right 98 percent of the time, he doesn't really know why the people who give him his information do so.

SurvivorSucks.com is just one of many sites devoted to revealing advance information about the hit CBS show. SurvivorSucks.com

Indeed, Carbone said that he doesn't enjoy spoilers, particularly for shows that like "Survivor," depend more on drama than does "The Bachelor." But he knows that his readers often want to hear what's coming. "I've had so many people email me and tell me, 'I love reading the end of a book first,'" Carbone said. "'I like to see it play out leading up to that...It would seem confusing, you don't know who any of these people are. I guess they just want to be out in front of it. They just want to tell their friends, 'I know something you don't know.'"

To Slezak, one of the most impressive examples of spoilers was the advance spilling of the list, in the proper order, of "Survivor: Nicaragua" contestants being voted off.

That feat of spoiler accuracy came courtesy of a famous "Survivor" spoiler perpetrator known as MissyAE. Sued by "Survivor" production company Mark Burnett Productions for his efforts, MissyAE, whose real name is Jim Early, revealed that he had gotten his information directly from one of the show's most notorious contestants, Russell Hantz.

In a widelypublished statement, CBS addressed the Hantz scandal, and "Survivor" spoilers by saying that,

From the beginning, "Survivor" has been blessed with a rabid fan base, including a fanatical group online which, from the show's early days, initiated one of television's first organized campaigns to predict and speculate results in advance of a reality show broadcast. As the show has progressed in years and the Internet has grown in scope, the number of these sites has increased with periodic claims of unauthorized leaks from people connected to the show.

We've investigated some of these claims. Each time, we've peeled back the curtain to find a subculture of the show with fans/bloggers simultaneously networking and competing with each other for spoiler information while hurling accusations of unfair practices against each other.

The fervent activity of these sites often generates a confusing web of backstabbing, claims of misinformation and Internet alliances. It's almost like an underground game-within-a-game of "Survivor" that plays out with the melodrama of a daytime soap and the complexity of Dungeons and Dragons.

Outwit, outplay, outlast. It happens more than just on the air.

Oddly, given how much online tools help with developing good spoiler information, Early told CNET that he used to compile his spoilers by dutifully tracking Google Alerts for anyone associated with the show--since many contestants or people who know them inadvertently give away information in interviews, often in their hometown newspapers--he now relies on a much more old-school method for getting his information: the phone.

It used to be "fun because it was like detective [work]," Early said, "but the new...way is 100 percent accurate."

And how does it work? Early said that he gets phone calls all the time from "Survivor" insiders who want to fill him in on what will happen on the show. Indeed, he said that Hantz--who was a contestant on the season of the show currently being aired--was his most reliable source. And other players reach out to him as well, often because they want to set the record straight about how something was presented to the viewing public.

"It sounds like a joke, but it's not," Early said of how he gets his information these days. "I just pick up the phone and say hello. Sources call me up and tell me everything."

 

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