'Lost' Fans Find A Niche on the Internet

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, December 4, 2005

Suppose you're considering an airline trip and you stumble onto the Web site http://www.oceanic-air.com/. The first thing you'd probably notice is the picture of a gorgeous beach and the airline's slogan, "Taking you to places you've never imagined!"

You'd see flight prices, boxes to enter information to search for a flight, all the things you'd expect to find on an airline site.

Then, you'd probably notice the message in all-caps: "ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED."

You'd go on to read a message from the Oceanic Airlines president: "Due to the financial difficulties in the wake of the Flight 815 tragedy, we are no longer able to sustain service."

You think: Huh? Did I miss a plane crash?

Nope. You've just been snookered by ABC and its hit show "Lost."

In case you've been on a desert island since fall 2004, like the characters in "Lost," the Wednesday night drama follows a group of plane-crash survivors on a South Pacific island. The passengers were flying the fictitious Oceanic Air from Sydney to Los Angeles when the jumbo jet hit turbulence and the tail section cracked off. Most of the passengers died (maybe), but two groups miraculously survived and landed on an island (maybe) that has become the biggest TV mystery since William Shatner's hair on "T.J. Hooker."

Other television networks have set up fake Web sites to promote their shows, pretending their characters and settings are real. Fans can visit these sites to banter with other fans in chat rooms, read bios of characters and so on.

But "Lost" and its characters have deep and complex backstories told through flashbacks, which means fans are left wanting far more than they are told. The weirdest backstory on the island is the island itself, which was the site of a strange socio-scientific experiment, the point of which is being slowly -- agonizingly slowly -- revealed.

This sort of mystery hunting and unspooling lends itself perfectly to the Internet, where crazed fans can Google for hours looking for gossip, tidbits, spoilers and hints as to what is going to happen. "Lost" is something of an anomaly -- a mass-audience show that inspires cultlike attention. Its 19 million weekly viewers carry on with an intensity usually reserved for born-to-be-canceled shows such "Twin Peaks," "Carnivale" and the original "Star Trek."

ABC and its parent company, the Walt Disney Co., tease fans by offering just a little more information about the island's big mystery on their Web sites. For instance, http://www.thehansofoundation.org/activeproject.html is a legitimate-looking site belonging to the fictitious organization that launched the island experiment, featuring a brief bio of Alvar Hanso, the secretive and brilliant Howard Hughes-like founder whose foundation engages in spooky pseudo-science projects such as life-extension and cryogenics. ABC would not say who the model is in the shadowy Hanso photograph (speculation: recently departed Disney topper Michael Eisner, who has enough money to become Howard Hughes) or where the name came from, but it is worth noting that "Alvar Hanso" anagrams into "an oval rash," which might be a clue, or just an itchy spot.

The Oceanic Air site has a partial seating chart of Flight 815 and hidden surprises, or "Easter eggs," in Web parlance. If the site is kept open long enough, hidden text appears: "please get word I'm alive and stranded on an island somewhere in the South Pacific. Please send help soon. Things are bad. And"

"And" what ?! This is how the show drives you crazy.

Drives lots of people crazy, it turns out. ABC's three "Lost" sites -- which include http://www.oceanicflight815.com , a traditional site with video clips from the show and other media -- have received more than 135 million page views since September, ABC says.

Need more? Go to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0411008/trivia , the Internet Movie Database's "Lost" trivia page, to learn, for example, "When the idea was to have Jack killed off in the pilot, the creators discussed casting Michael Keaton as Jack." Yes, the only thing worse than being trapped on a desert island is being trapped on a desert island with Beetlejuice.

As you might imagine, there's plenty of "Lost" Web action on the fan side. For instance, http://thelostnumbers.blogspot.com/ says it is "dedicated to finding the number references 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, & 42" that reoccur throughout the show.

Also, there's http://www.lost-tv.com/, an unofficial show site, which includes plot spoilers; the http://www.lost-media.com/ fan site, and of course plenty of discussion groups, such as http://lost-tv.tribe.net/.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company