I was stunned to learn yesterday that more people tuned in Wednesday night to watch CBS procedural Criminal Minds than ABC's Lost. While 16.10 million viewers caught Mandy Patinkin over on the Eye, a blip fewer (16.07 million viewers) tuned in to find out exactly what happened to Locke, Eko, and Desmond when the hatch went kablooey. I find that downright troubling, even more worrisome than the fact that we're already halfway through Lost's "fall season."
I should mention that, thanks to the coveted 18-49 demographic, Lost still came out number one for the evening. But the fact that the two series are virtually neck and neck for viewership makes me concerned, given that Lost has seen double-digit percentage declines year-to-year. Serialized dramas as a whole have taken a hit this season with Jericho and Heroes being the only two new series able to find an audience. Meanwhile, NBC is burning off Kidnapped on Saturdays and, yesterday, Fox announced their plans to wrap up Vanished after 13 episodes. So why would ABC put Lost on hiatus for 13 weeks to try out an untested serialized drama, Day Break?
ABC's rationale for cutting the third season of Lost into two chunks was that viewers were frustrated by too many repeats during the season. So ABC decided to air 6 episodes of Lost in the fall with a cliffhanger intended to sate fans' appetites until the drama returns in mid-February. But will the audience come back?
I turned to two other TV professionals -- a producer on a current hit TV series and a studio exec -- for their opinions on the Lost quandary. For the sake of privacy, both will remain anonymous, but we'll call them Mr. Producer and Studio Maven (or Maven for short).
"ABC is in for a rude awakening when it pulls Lost at the end of sweeps," said Mr. Producer. "With audience erosion approaching the double digits, it's suicide to continue with its plan to pull Lost. With its huge tumble from last season -- and an overdose on serialized dramas -- I feel like audiences will continue to flee the show ... and possibly flock to time slot competitor, procedural Criminal Minds, which has picked up almost four million viewers since this time last season -- roughly the same amount that has left Lost."
Maven wholeheartedly agreed with Mr. Producer's assessment. "My gut is that it's a VERY bad idea to pull Lost so early in the season," she said. "The fact that the ratings are slipping is alarming, for sure, but if you take it off this early I think you run the risk of a certain percentage of people just not coming back. If people feel like it's work to keep up with when a show is on, they won't watch. True, the double digit percentage drop from last year to this year is worrisome, but it's still holding its own. Pulling it for a new show will not only anger fans (again), but potentially hurt the ratings even more."
Personally, I'd have to agree. Waiting the summer months out for a new episode of Lost was difficult enough, but the show's producers (and studio) were smart enough to unleash The Lost Experience, an online, interactive "experience" outside of the show for addicts to pore over and analyze all summer long. There are no current plans during the 13-week hiatus to launch anything that will keep the show in the forefront of fans' minds during this time ... no matter how amazing that fall season cliffhanger is.
So what's the alternative on Wednesdays at 9 pm? ABC's Day Break? Having seen the pilot back in May, I can't say that I am planning to tune into the series. Whether Lost fans plan on watching this instead remains to be seen.
"By subbing in the Taye Diggs Groundhog Day-esque action series Day Break, you are asking viewers to commit to yet another high-concept serialized drama, something that ABC has failed to do with The Nine (and last season's Invasion)," said Mr. Producer. "Viewers may watch Jack Bauer's bad days on 24, but I don't know how many viewers want to watch Taye Diggs relive the same bad day over and over again."
So what does Mr. Producer think of Day Break's chances of success in Lost's timeslot? "Its future ultimately depends on its success and the possible cancellation of The Nine," he said. "If The Nine continues its shoddy run, and Day Break is able to hold onto Lost's numbers [in the timeslot], I'm thinking we will see Day Break shift into The Nine's slot come January ... and be paired up with an early returning Lost."
On the other hand, Maven had a completely different take on how ABC should proceed, regardless of how well Day Break does. "With the poor ratings of Six Degrees, I don't see why ABC doesn't just keep Lost where it is and stick Day Break in Six Degrees' spot, or if they really want to take a risk ... put Lost on Thursday at 10, after Grey's, opposite the rejuvenated ER," she offered.
I definitely agree with Maven and think that the one-two punch of Grey's Anatomy leading into Lost could be just the thing to boost the (relatively) sagging ratings of Lost and solidify Thursday night as belonging to ABC (they also air breakout hit Ugly Betty on the same night). Obviously, people are switching over to NBC's ER because they'd rather watch that than freshman series Shark or Six Degrees.
As for ER, NBC had originally intended to put that series on hiatus and air mid-season drama The Black Donnellys for 13 weeks, but last week the Peacock reconsidered its position and will instead leave the medical drama where it is and may even increase its episode count to 25. Pretty ironic for a series that many insiders had pegged was in its penultimate season.
Something tells me ABC would be wise to follow suit. Otherwise, Lost's audience may just up and disappear off the radar like a certain Oceanic flight.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions junior exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionary.blogspot.com.