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Cursed Numbers: Why "Lost" Seems to Be Losing Viewers

Maybe the computer countdown digits aren't Lost's only cursed numbers, after all.

Longtime readers of Televisionary will remember that I sided very much against ABC's decision to pull Lost for 13 weeks in a (now fatal) attempt to launch a new serialized drama Day Break. I think, between the failure of Day Break and the horrific erosion of viewers for Lost, that it was a monumental error on ABC's part to yank Lost for so long... and to return it to a third timeslot in three years.

If you recall, I had sat down with the producer of a top US series (here called Mr. Producer for the sake of anonymity and mystery) to get his take on Lost's controversial hiatus (hint: he too was against it), and he's kindly returned with some further thoughts, now that the series has returned to the airwaves.

So, what does Mr. Producer think of the ABC execs who decided to schedule the season this way? "Those foolish programming execs must be eating crow now," he said, "as Lost has hemorrhaged half its audience from last season, destroying a valuable programming asset that was bringing in millions in revenue."

It was those execs that made some enormous blunders in scheduling the early six episodes of Lost (a mere appetizer, if you ask me) in the fall and then holding off on any new episodes until midseason, but they definitely compounded the problem by shifting it to a later timeslot at 10 pm. According to Mr. Producer: "ABC let time slot competition Criminal Minds expand its audience, further cemented by CBS posting it in the sweet spot after the Super Bowl. With Idol in the mix, and Minds achieving sky-high ratings, ABC felt it had no choice to move Lost to a later time."

So the execs made the only choice at their disposal then, right? "No, if the execs couldn't stop their trigger-fingers from itching, they should have actually moved it to 8 pm, thus exposing it to a greater audience who has just sat down to watch television," Mr. Producer continued. "For the most part, Idol would be out of its way (excluding its Hollywood audition rounds), and its competition would have simply been a mix of reality shows (Beauty and the Geek/Top Model), the severely ratings starved drama Friday Night Lights, the similarly hiatus-scheduled Jericho, and Bones. Lost would have cut a bloody path through all those dramas and perhaps would have sent Friday Night Lights to its shallow grave."

But wasn't the old complaint that Lost's original timeslot (that would be Wednesdays at 8 pm) was too early? Our producer friend doesn't agree with that at all. In fact, he believes that Lost is actually a great family show and the move to the 10 o'clock hour has alienated a lot of its audience. "People don't want to stay up that late to watch it," says Mr. Producer, "and those who are DVR-less are simply screwed. Plus, most likely people without DVR aren't the same people who are willing to watch it on either."

Then there's the matter of that timeslot change. Mr. Producer thinks that the series' more casual viewers aren't even aware that the show's air time has changed; while everyone knew that the show was returning, ABC has confused the issue slightly by airing reruns--of last week's first run installment--the following week at 9 pm. In fact, if one were to add the ratings for the encore presentation of "Not in Portland" to the winter premiere ratings, the numbers are actually higher than the ratings for the fall and on par with last season's ratings.

"Perhaps the audience is still there," he suggests, "they are just fragmented due to lack of understanding of how the show has been scheduled. They may even be tuning into the encore because these viewers think its a new episode and turn off the television before they realize there is a new episode following in the 10 pm hour."

Or, again, they're DVR-less and unwilling to stay up until 11 pm to watch the show... a definitely likelihood if we buy into the family viewing theory. Most Americans do go to bed around 10 pm, after all. And, as long as ABC offers the 9 pm viewing option (albeit a week late), some viewers may continue to watch that rather than the first-run episodes at 10 pm.

So, ultimately, what can ABC do at this point to stem the tide of audience erosion? Both Mr. Producer and I agree that ABC should either return Lost to its 9 pm timeslot. Or do something really daring and surprise us all by moving it all the way to 8 pm.

After all, with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse talking about how they want to end the series around episode 100, wouldn't it behoove the network to actually get Lost to Season Five at this point?


ticknart said…
So, one of the big questions is what can be done to get those numbers back up next season?

Adjust the time slot, again?
Go back to a regular schedule with reruns mixed in with original episodes through out the year?
Go 24 and push the start of the season back to January or later?

(I remember reading a suggestion that the cast and crew should just barrel through the entire season starting in September with no breaks until the 22 episodes have run though, but that's not really a reasonable shooting schedule.)

Or maybe people have just gotten tired of the serialized nature of the show. I have two friends who gave up on it last season because they thought it was getting boring. (I went through this with Smallville and even the Justice Leagueish thing couldn't peak my interest enough to watch it again.) How do you argue with that? If someone just loses interest in a show, how do the writers and producers bring them back into the fold?

I wish that I had a good idea of what to do. I don't, though, because I think the show is great no matter what time it's on or which day it's on or how convoluted the story seem to get. I'll be there watching it every week. Even the reruns.
I don't really get why people are losing interest in the show. The time changes and weird scheduling haven't helped but a lot of people have given up on it simply because they think it's "boring" (seriously?) or "too confusing" (which I don't buy at all). Granted, the novelty of the survivor's situation has worn off a bit but I think the writers have done an excellent job creating new mysteries and engaging characters to keep us interested.
Anonymous said…
Josh -

Great writing. Great insight. I enjoy reading your blog.

Any truth to the rumor that all of Lost's mysteries will not be solved for us? Exciting writing without a complete tie-it-all-together concept/solution in mind?
Anonymous said…
I meant to say Jace in my previous post. My sincere apologies.

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