Lost on another blog

03Feb10

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…

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7 Responses to “Lost on another blog”

  1. Great post, Jason. Ratings are near and dear to my heart, so I was thrilled to see you take on the issue.

    First, I think you’re absolutely right about Lost’s erosion in ratings being more about platform migration than about “bad” narrative structure. To take your point a step further, I would argue that those fans that chose to watch on other platforms might be MORE valuable to ABC and advertisers than those who watch on live, linear TV. After all, as you’ve shown with the idea of “narrative complexity,” viewers who are truly invested in a show are more likely to watch on a platform that allows them to pause, rewind, and re-watch. We’ve seen some shows on Hulu getting a higher CPM than linear TV audiences, but no one has yet to fully leverage the monetary value of an “engaged” audience—probably because engagement metrics have been a joke to this point. It’s time for the television and advertising industries to get it together and realize that their best supporters, customers, and brand advocates aren’t watching live TV.

    Second, the numbers I’ve seen for Lost’s premier are Live + SD, which means they’re a combination of those who watched live and those who recorded the show and played it back by 2 AM. I wonder if Lost will see much of a bump when they add +3 day ratings and +7 day ratings. My hunch is that Lost IS such a cultural phenomenon that most people will watch as soon as they can, even if they do DVR it. I bet Lost’s C3 ratings will give it a bit of a boost, but that +7s will be negligible. People get hard-core cultural value from watching and discussing Lost. The sooner you watch, the sooner you can talk about it, dissect it and try to figure it out. And for the record, I have no idea what’s going on. Off to read your other blog post!

    • 2 David Kociemba

      First, great blog. I’ll be blogging about your Best of the Oughts over at Watcher Junior, on the Buffy angle.

      Second, I’m an example of someone who mainlined five seasons of Lost in about 2 months to get ready for season six. The idea that it’s platform migration that causes the declining ratings is a part of it, I think.

      Finally, should we count the re-airing the next week of “enhanced episodes” of the last week’s episode as part of its ratings? They are re-runs, but they’re much closer in time to the original broadcast than we usually mean by the term.

  2. Thanks for the comments Sheila! Another bit of evidence on the ratings: compared to the 2009 premiere, the total ratings were +6%, A18-49 viewers +10% and +20% for A18-34 viewers. Given that the relative size of the increase grows the younger you get, it makes sense that platform migration is the main factor, as younger viewers are far more likely to consume on non-broadcast systems.

  3. And just another snippet on online viewing, from the Cynopsis newsletter: “Benefiting from the built up anticipation of Lost’s final season, ABC.com delivered more than 580,000 episode starts of Lost’s season 6 debut last Wed., an increase of over 34% from last year, according to internal ABC data. Visitors recorded another 2.2. million views of Lost-related content.”

  4. 5 Erica Andrus

    Hi Jason!
    I just wanted to let you know that I am one of those viewers (and by extension my husband, too) who left sometime in the second season, but has now come back for the final season. The reason I was willing to do this was entirely because of all the “enhanced” reruns, where the subtitles explain the references to previous shows and allow you to know the backstory without having seen those in-between seasons.
    Thanks for your insights!
    -Erica


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