Lost on another blog
So thus begins season 6 of Lost. I give “LA X” two big thumbs up (one in 2004 & one in 2007!), but to read why, you need to go over to Antenna, a newish online venture out of my graduate alma mater, University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Media & Cultural Studies program. The goal of Antenna is to have brief posts by a range of authors on interesting new developments in the world of media, prompting conversations and community. I’ve happily agreed to write about Lost’s final season there, so be sure to subscribe to its feed for many great voices on a range of media.
While that post focuses on issues of narrative and fan expectations, I wanted to offer some additional commentary on how Lost‘s ratings successes or failures are being discussed. The consensus narrative about the show’s ratings seems to be this: Lost was a break-out surprise hit in its first season, with peaking interest in season 2, during which lukewarm fans bailed for lack of answers and increasing sci-fi weirdness. For one of the clearest instances of that storyline being repeated as gospel truth, see this recent quote: “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.”
There are three major problems with this narrative. First, there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that the “precisely because” claim is based on anything but that writer’s hunch or anecdotal mutterings – it takes a ratings decline and maps on causality with no rationale. Second, it assumes that a show’s ratings are an accurate measure of viewership or being a cultural phenomenon, which we know to be untrue. (Based on this logic, NCIS and Two and a Half Men would be cultural phenomena.)
Thirdly and most importantly, it is based on the assumption that watching a show like Lost on broadcast television is the only viewership that matters. While it is true that this metric is what matters most to ABC, it has very little to do with how Lost fans actually engage with the show. It’s quite successful on DVD, via streaming, and downloading, as much of the core audience prefers to watch in a more compressed and controlled manner than via broadcasting. There is significant evidence to suggest that Lost‘s declining ratings is less about dwindling viewers than platform migration.
Additionally, it completely discounts the snowballing that DVD publishing and streaming allows. I know many people who did not watch the show in its broadcast run who have caught up with DVD, and are now watching season 6 in real time(s). Of course if they are not Nielsen households, that viewership doesn’t register in the ratings, but based on this theory we should see increases in ratings from the Nielsen viewers who have caught-up.
The breaking news is that last night’s ratings seem to have improved from the last couple of years. Without sufficient evidence to explain this increase, which of these theories seems most plausible: viewers left the show for 3 years, but now return to see the final season regardless of a huge gap in story, vs. viewers have caught-up via DVD and now are watching in real time? I’ll take the latter as the driving factor to explain the modest ratings increases, which can only make sense if we understand that the annual ebbs and flows of Lost‘s ratings are not the primary measure of its “viewership.”
OK, back to figuring out how many people Jack killed via his self-centered big bang stunt…
Filed under: Academia, Meta-blogging, Television, TV Industry, TV Shows | 7 Comments
Tags: Lost, Nielsen ratings
random thoughts from media scholar Jason Mittell
Check out my books:How To Watch Television Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling Television & American Culture
Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture
Academia Books Complex TV Copyright Fair Use Fandom Film Genre MediaCommons Media Politics Media Studies Meta-blogging Middlebury Narrative New Media Not Quite TV Press Publishing Representations Spoilers Taste Teaching Technology Television TV Industry TV Shows TV Textbook Vermont Videogames Viewers
- Evaluating Digital Scholarship, or Confessions of an External Reviewer
- True Disappointment
- A Few Thoughts on Improving the SCMS Conference
- Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits
- How to Watch Television: Phineas and Ferb
- Breaking Toward the End
- Complex TV: Ends
- The Ends of Serial Criticism
- Heading Back to Europe
- Complex TV: Serial Melodrama