More on Lost and casual vs. dedicated viewers

03Apr07

So I recently saw a link to a radio show interview that Lost producers Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse did recently on the NPR show On Point. You can listen to the whole show online, where they take call-in questions from viewers and explore some really interesting stuff. But I’m mostly interested in this clip, in which the producers address my lingering question about Lost for the past 6 months – what is the relationship between The Lost Experience and the show’s narrative? – and in the process address the issue of dedicated vs. casual viewers I’ve been discussing lately. (Please take 5 minutes to listen instead of me trying to transcribe it…)

Wow. This dovetails with a whole bunch of issues I’ve been spinning around in the blog. First off, they affirm what I’ve been saying about the issue of TV ratings and the industry’s engagement with new media platforms. Lost, which certainly attracts a high percentage of loyal viewers (skewing toward fanatical), is under-measured by traditional Nielsens because they don’t accurately account for the “millions who stream the show at ABC.com,” TiVo users, iTunes purchasers, and DVD collectors. ABC knows this, so a seeming decline in ratings is understood as a platform migration, a shift more in how we’re watching, not how many are watching.

More interestingly, Damon acknowledges how they are crafting a complex narrative for multiple types of viewers. On the one hand, the deeper layers of mystery can be spun-off into the online environment for dedicated loyalists to seek out & obsess over, especially via this summer’s Lost Experience. As the caller indicates, much was revealed in this alternate reality game, including the identity of Alvar Hanso, the meaning of the numbers, and goals of the DHARMA Initiative – the caller, like me, played the game and accumulated narrative information that he (& I) expected to be revealed in the early part of season 3. I’ve been shocked that the show has not paid off these revelations to the broader audience by including this early DHARMA orientation film that us ARGers unearthed within an episode:

In this interview, Damon says that casual viewers like his mother (yes, mothers are always stand-ins for the “typical” media consumer!) don’t care about who Alvar Hanso is – they just want to follow the characters trying to get off the island. For the producers, the casual viewer’s interests mirror the characters’ – because Jack, Kate, and Sawyer don’t really care who Alvar Hanso is, casual viewers don’t either. This outlines a clear dichotomy: casual viewers are invested in the characters, loyal fans are invested in the larger storyworld mythology (and the characters).

Is this true? On the one hand, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not – if the producers of one of the most complex & influential TV shows on-the-air internalize this distinction, then it is encoded into the narrative design. This would explain why so much of the first part of season 3 focused on relationships, as they were trying to engage casual viewers who cared about what the characters wanted: freedom (Jack), safety (Charlie & Claire), a mission (Eko & Locke), each other (Sawyer & Kate). This may have backfired with loyal viewers like myself by not delivering sufficiently on mythology, but it explains the storytelling logic: the characters were generally not interested in the information revealed in The Lost Experience, so the show didn’t go down that path. (Arguably, the revelation of the meaning of the numbers would answer some of Hurley’s lingering questions!)

I do think the greater misfire was the assumption that all dedicated loyal fans would migrate across platforms to the participate in the ARG. Such games are so specialized and require a degree of multimedia literacy and engagement (as well as time, taste for puzzle-solving, and high frustration threshold) that does not apply to many of the millions of loyal TV-viewing Lost fans. In fact I’m the only person among the many diehard Lost fans I know who did the ARG. While the model of transmedia storytelling that the producers were aiming for, where dedicated viewers can dip below the water to acquire backstory across media, is a noble experiment, it seems like the specific media they chose were too divergent to have the payoff they expected.

As for the issue about the casual=characters / loyal=storyworld dichotomy, I’m not so sure. I welcome feedback as I try to mull it over…



3 Responses to “More on Lost and casual vs. dedicated viewers”

  1. I had a much longer post here, but I lost it (ha!) when I accidentally navigated away from the site. Damn it.

    Sigh. To restate my points, with much less eloquence:

    Do ARG players feel that the series has not yet validated their endeavor? Does it require confirmation on the actual show for them to feel validated somehow (like spoilers, maybe?)?

    Cuse and Lindelof’s point about what the characters want makes a lot of narrative sense. During Seasons 1 and 2, Locke’s intense curiosity about the island/Dharma/hatches served as a cipher for the viewers most invested in that aspect of the show, reaching a climax with the Blast Door Map. When he lost his “faith,” we had Eko to serve that role for a few episodes. This year, however, while he’s reinvested in the island, he’s only got antipathy for the Others, the Dharma Initiative, and (possibly) even his fellow survivors. None of our remaining regulars cares much for the mysteries as well; they just want the hell off the island, and/or to be left alone. So there’s no real motivation to unearth any mysteries, and, unless the story suddenly shifts gears (which it probably will in coming weeks), any “revelations” will be incidental, and perhaps even unnoticed by our characters. I’d put things like Roger the Dharma “work man,” the skeletons in the polar bear cave, and even the Clockwork Orange room that Carl was in, all in this category. I can’t imagine any of our regulars would willfully sit down for another Dharma orientation film now, let alone “watch it again.”

    As for the characters vs. storyline dichotomy, my $0.02 right now is that it’s likely an effective industry truism which keeps shows hewing to particular conventions (at least till this point). Lost and (moreso, because its characters are even murkier) BG complicate this, because the fate of the characters is so tied to the complex narratives. Characters on Grey’s Anatomy talk talk TALK about their personal stuff. Characters on BG glower, trade ambiguous glances, and flirt (sort of). There’s a difference!

    I’m working on a follow-up blog post of my own on these topics, hopefully up this week (though now, I’ll likely wait till after “Left Behind” on Wednesday!)

  2. 2 jmittell

    Derek – good question about why I (& other ARGers) care about the show “validating” our discoveries. For me, it’s two-fold. As a narratologist, I want to see how transmedia storytelling works. To reveal what appears to be crucial storyworld info online but not acknowledge it in the “core text” seems problematic as a structural design.

    As a fan, I find it really odd that I know canonical story that other fans don’t – and I’d rather not have such knowledge inequality in place (yes, I’m not a spoiler fan). Part of it might be that I want the “work” I did over the summer to “matter,” but more it’s because I think that the story information revealed in the blog does matter – and I want the majority of fans to be able to share in that info. And I want to be able to talk about this with other Lost fans.

    Ultimately, I see the DHARMA/Hanso revelations as significant dangling story material that I want the show to move forward – I want to see what happens when Hurley discovers that the numbers actually are apocolyptic, when Locke discovers that the DHARMA project was actually trying to save the world, and when Jack is confronted with the scientific basis of DHARMA. So it boils down to old-fashioned narrative curiosity.

  3. Another factor to consider is timing and the production schedule. I’m certain the key bits of knowledge about Dharma, the island, etc., were decided upon back in Season 1; they’re not likely to change. What has changed/is changing is their ability to unspool this complicated tale. That is, they’ve got the blueprint, and a clear picture of what the whole thing looks like in the end, but actually building it is a methodical, difficult, and (yes) pleasurable process.

    Things like the ARG, and, possibly (it’s all still a bit ambiguous to me) the short stints of most of the “tailies” add to the complications by delivering (or seemingly promising to deliver, in the case of the latter) loads of backstory and revelations, but at a rate that didn’t quite mesh with the demands of weekly prime-time television. I would imagine that the ARG was produced during Season 2, with the honest intent of delivering some of its revelations during Season 3. However, the narration (i.e., the way the story’s being told) took a slightly different tack leading out of Season 2 and into Season 3, after the ARG had already been produced.

    In the last official podcast, for example, Cuse and Lindelof admit that they expanded Ben’s role due to the bravura performance of Michael Emerson (it was originally a three-episode arc). I suspect that the same could be said of Henry Ian Cusick’s Desmond; i.e., that he wasn’t always going to be a regular when he was introduced at the start of Season 2. There’s no doubt similar examples (including the head-scratching decision to cast an eleven-year old actor in a narrative that only moves forward one month a season; if Walt indeed comes back sometime next year, as is hinted, he may be as tall as his Dad…in the space of four months!).

    I agree that it would be cool to see the character’s reactions to some of the Dharma revelations, and I would imagine that some of them are forthcoming this season. It looks like Ben and Juliet are just going to get chattier and chattier about stuff (with minimal prompting from our survivors, I might add, kind of like when the Bond villains talk about their grand plans while 007 plots his escape), while good ol’ Tom lets slip a possible clue every time he opens his mouth. I just don’t see a massive ARG-like info-dump in the cards. We’ll get bits and pieces here and there, with the Big Picture ultimately emerging, while some ARG info will be rendered extraneous and left in the ARG.


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