Friday, February 01, 2008

Lost: Ratings comeback kid

ABC's enormous investment of three hours of prep for the Season 4 premiere has paid off with a bonanza 16.1 million viewers. Devoting four hours of primetime to one show was in some sense a big risk: 2 hours of a caption-packed enhanced-version rerun of the previous season's finale on Wednesday, and an hour of a recap clip show before the premiere. But in the barren strike-crippled scheduling landscape, it was a smart move.

I had read with some worry Lisa de Moraes' gloom-and-doom prediction in The Washington Post that the Lost premiere would underperform. She noted that conventional wisdom anticipated that original programming, such as the new episode of House in November, and of course American Idol would do very well due to lack of competition in strikeland, then points out that both have turned out to be ratings disappointments.

She further predicted that Lost's Season 4 premiere would perform well below its most recent ratings last May at 14 million viewers, that in itself being a big dip from Lost's all time peak of 20 million.

Luckily her prediction was wrong. The 16.1 million figure from last night (albeit below the S3 premiere viewership of 18.8 million) was an extraordinary affirmation of ABC's strategy: 3 hours of recaps to encourage new or casual viewers, and the Grey's Anatomy timeslot, which further comes with the bonus of not competing with the Idol machine. Also, did you notice the "It's never to late to start watching Lost" tagline? Obviously one prong of ABC's strategy is to garner new viewers, and with Lost's complex storyline, these efforts are necessary, and apparently have been effective. The road to joining as a new viewer is even better lubricated when we add the fact that today's new Lost viewers have New Media options at the website: they can view streaming full episodes in HD going back to Season 1. In fact, underlining this importance is that for the first time, viewers can watch streaming downloads of both "catch-ups" programs: The most recent clip show as well as the enhanced version of 3x22. Adding the Oceanic TV ad to Eli Stone (which immediately followed Lost), and retaining 11.6 million viewers, was the icing on the cake.

Good job, ABC, and good job Stephen McPherson. And for fans, Lost's current role as a major anchor for the network bodes very well indeed for the future of the franchise. Now let's hope for a speedy resolution of the WGA strike (we might hear something next week), so that at least some of the rest of Season 4's planned episodes may yet be recovered.

UDPATE FEB 5: See how Lost fared against the Superbowl and other fare during the entire week's ratings at Zap2it: Week Jan 28 - Feb 03 2008
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