Why didn’t ABC’s Lost series end earlier, when the show was at the peak of its ratings?
Lost would have ended on a high, in Seinfeld fashion, with its viewers, dignity and quality in tact.
Lost reached its ratings peak during Season 3. Its one rival on some nights was TV’s No. 1 show, American Idol.
By Season 4, ABC wanted to take advantage of the writers’ strike, which riddled primetime TV with reruns and reality shows. So they kept the show on air and unleashed a huge marketing plan to keep audiences interested.
But it was too late. By Season 4, Lost was losing viewers by the millions. Whether they lost them to Netflix rentals, On Demand viewings or simply because the plot became too confusing, it didn’t seem to matter to ABC. The show was still top-rated, so it was renewed year after year. Producers continued to make the plotline more and more complicated. And, finally, audiences started demanding answers.
Over at Killing the Buddha, Graham Hillard wonders if Lost could have ended during Season 3, during a particularly tense and mysterious moment.
Lost declined to conclude its run here, arguably at the height of its effectiveness, was, of course, inevitable—a byproduct of both its role as a moneymaking venture and, on a larger scale, the commoditization of American art. Whether or not an ending that increased rather than alleviated tension would have worked (see HBO’s Carnivale for evidence that it can), an industry used to wringing the last dollar from its good ideas would not have allowed it. After all, since its peak as a cultural phenomenon somewhere in the middle of its second season, Lost has seen its ratings decline precisely because many of its viewers have come to the conclusion that the show’s creators are less interested in answering questions than in raising them. The show had to go on not only for economic reasons, but because its remaining fans—not an insubstantial number—would never have trusted the network again.
He argues “against a conclusion” during Lost‘s final season. Producers should rebuke the demands for conclusions, he writes, since concrete answers would go against everything Lost is: a TV show that has mastered the art of fiction, mystery and winding plotlines.
But aren’t those reasons exactly the reason why Lost is losing viewers?
Here’s a convenient chart of ratings, courtesy of Wikipedia, which shows how ratings bottomed out for Lost.
Last year, Season 5’s two-hour premiere delivered just an average of 11.4 million total viewers, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. According to the Los Angeles Times, in adults ages 18 to 49, Lost averaged a 5.0 rating, its worst season opener ever and down 26% compared with 2008. “In maybe the most troubling sign for ABC, the premiere lost viewers every half-hour it was on,” the Times noted.
The final season’s first episode finally airs tonight on ABC. We’ll have to wait until then for some answers–or maybe we shouldn’t get any at all.
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