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Do you remember the old days back when we sat around and watched a sports event or TV show with people in real time with commercials? You might have even called up a friend far away to share your thoughts on what was happening in the game or who had won which Academy Awards. But with time-shifting and DVRs such as TiVo becoming an ingrained part of our culture, our etiquette for sharing information or exclamations as we watch the action has shifted as well.

The problem is that we don’t all watch the same events at the same time anymore. We all want to avoid the onslaught of commercials, so we set up our digital video recorder to tape the event so we can watch it later and skip through the advertising. So if I planned to watch a game later than my friends, I don’t want them calling me to scream about our team blowing it in the last minute. That just spoils my fun.

My friend Willem has been leading a time-shifted life for longer than anyone I know. Back in the VCR era, he had multiple tape machines going so he could tape one game while watching another. We used to hang out in his apartment watching shows like “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” on delay so we could skip the commercials. But Willem always had his rules. You can’t watch anything ahead of time, and you can’t answer your phone during any games watched on delay.

He was frustrated each time he watched sports with a new group of people, because often they didn’t understand the rules. In the middle of the action, someone would say how they had watched that part of the game and knew what would happen. “Shhhh! Don’t tell us!” we’d all yell out, holding our ears.

Recently, I had a similar experience when watching the Big 12 championship game between my alma mater Missouri and Oklahoma. I warned my friends who came over to my place not to answer their phones, and to shut them off. But one friend peeked at his text messages, and saw a strange message from a number he didn’t recognize: “Your worst nightmare is coming true.” Of course that message was sent in the middle of the game and we were just starting up. Eventually, we realized when Missouri got crushed what had happened and what the message meant.

The Query Before the Comment

If we don’t want to spoil the ending of games or shows we’re taping, we have to be careful of what media we consume. So if there’s a game we’ve recorded, we shouldn’t be watching ESPN on TV, where a ticker shows the final scores of all of that day’s games. Or if we’re watching a season finale of our favorite TV show on DVR, we wouldn’t want to read all the reviews of that show online beforehand. Spoilers are everywhere and it helps to black out as much live media as possible before watching something that’s taped.

In a time-shifted world, potential spoilers lurk around every corner — and not just in places you expect. You might hear DJs on FM radio commenting on a local football game’s outcome, even though it’s not a sports show. You might walk into a corner convenience store to pick up some food and see a game on TV there, ruining what happened. Probably the worst place to be for a time-shifting sports fan is a consumer electronics store such as Best Buy, where live games are being played out on multiple TV sets for sale.

What’s ironic is that more and more people are taping TV shows on DVRs to watch later, but there’s also more and more 24/7 information on what’s happened on those shows all around us. So we might not want to know what happened on those shows so we can enjoy them later, but simultaneously we are being bombarded with news about them online, on TV, on radio, on blogs, in emails. To really avoid finding out what happened, we literally have to unplug from every device so we don’t get that untimely text message.

Perhaps you don’t use a DVR yourself, but you don’t want to ruin the fun for your friends or co-workers. The best etiquette in that case is to query them before you comment. “Did you watch the game last night or do you have it on tape?” That simple query could help you from becoming the local spoiler.

I’ve learned to be very careful when bringing up any recent sporting events when talking to Willem. I first check in to see what he might have on tape that he hasn’t watched yet. Rather than exclaim what I thought about such-and-such game, I start out with a very neutral question about whether he watched the game yet. There’s no emotion, no edge to my question. If he has it on tape and hasn’t watched it yet, that line of conversation simply ends right there. If he has watched it, then we can talk about it openly.

Maybe these stilted conversations and media blackouts are unnatural, and a step backward in our long tradition of water cooler talk at work and the shared viewing of live events as they happen. Over time, they will likely become the norm, as we take control of what we watch and when we watch it.

What’s your experience with DVR’ed sports and TV shows? Do your friends ruin the outcomes or are they trained in your time-shifted ways? What etiquette do you think will arise as more people time-shift their TV viewing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of DVR remote by Daniel Greene via Flickr.

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