On the morning of May 15, 2007, Lost executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof were putting the last touches on the finale of season 3, a two-hour extravaganza with a top secret ending. At least, it was supposed to be a secret. Taking a break from a scoring session, the producers checked their e-mails and found their inboxes filling with urgent news: someone using the handle ''Lostfan108'' had just posted a complete synopsis of the finale on the Web. ''It felt like I had been planning a surprise party for a year for my wife,'' says Lindelof, ''and then one of her friends called the night before and ruined it.''
ABC persuaded the offending site to remove the scoop, though by that time, the plot points had already spread across a large network of fansites. Lindelof and Cuse never did figure out how the leak happened, but in the months that followed they took measures to better secure the production. Yet on May 19, 2008, just two days after they wrapped their season 4 finale, ''Lostfan108'' struck again. A rundown of the whole episode, beginning to end. ''It's awful,'' says Cuse, clearly bummed. ''I'm just trying to let it go.''
For the dwindling few for whom the word spoiler still means a strip of metal on the back of a sports car, well (SPOILER ALERT!) times have changed. The word has become such a familiar piece of information-age slang Steve Carell used it as a glib synonym for ''News flash!'' in the recent season finale of The Office that it's lost much of its ''forbidden knowledge'' bite. Yet among pop culture junkies, spoilers are either an alarming or alluring part of their experience and one that's becoming inescapable in today's hypercompetitive media environment. Last year, a Web prankster posted blurry photographed pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows four days before publication. But the real spoilsports were The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun, which smoked out copies and ran early, revealing reviews.
As readers of this magazine often remind us, many people steer clear of spoilers especially with TV, as growing DVR usage and Web watching has allowed for customized viewing schedules. But for those who simply must know now what will happen next on Brothers & Sisters or what manner of mystery Mulder and Scully will be investigating in the X-Files movie, the spoilers are out there, mostly on the Internet, stored on a growing proliferation of so-called ''fansites.'' ''Spoiler sites are for people who can't read a book without skipping ahead to the final page,'' says Isabelle Roy, webmaster of the appropriately named SpoilerFix.com, a popular clearinghouse for TV scoops that logged 25 million hits last May. ''We live in a world where everything is instantaneous. We want answers now.''
NEXT PAGE: ''How many times does somebody ask, 'Did you hear what happened?' And you say, 'No.' In that little moment, that person with information has power. I'm 100 percent certain spoilers are as simple as that.''