With 'Lost Experience,' ABC Moves Beyond the Island

"Lost" follows the survivors of a fictional plane crash, as they struggle to survive on an island populated by supernatural forces. (Courtesy Of Abc)

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By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Start with the one thing you know is real: "Lost" is a television drama about the survivors of a made-up crash of a fictitious airline's jumbo jet on a South Pacific island found on no map.

After that, nothing is certain in the expanding realm of ABC's hit Wednesday night mystery.

The network has set up a complex system of Web sites for phony organizations, launched an international treasure hunt, commissioned a novel by an unidentified author and taken out ads for bogus issues in real newspapers -- including this one -- in a conspiracy to extend the show's fictional world into the real one.

Hoping to keep "Lost" viewers hooked during the summer rerun doldrums, ABC has created an "alternate-reality game" of a scope heretofore unseen in television marketing. "The Lost Experience" is designed to create a parallel world of fresh content outside the show and plant hints via the Internet that the network hopes will lead viewers right up to the September launch of the show's third season.

"We have always wanted to approach 'Lost' in marketing as if it's real," said Michael Benson, ABC executive vice president of marketing.

Technology, specifically the increasing popularity of high-speed Internet, has aided the ruse in a way that would not have been possible only a few years ago. Also, the Internet's ability to deliver TV-quality programming has broken down barriers between content and marketing at ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co.

First, though, the TV show.

"Lost," which debuted in fall 2004, is an anomaly in prime-time television: a bona fide hit that has created a cult following. It chronicles the lives of the 44 known survivors of the crash of Oceanic Air Flight 815 from Sydney to Los Angeles, as they struggle to survive on an island populated by supernatural forces, a monster of some sort and a group of predatory, spooky "Others." To add to the mystery, the island is pocked with bunkers set up for strange social experiments, in which they may be taking part. Or not.

The show has averaged about 15 million viewers a week during its first two seasons, according to Nielsen Media Research, placing it solidly within the top 20 prime-time programs.

Even with its success, the show's ratings will drop by half during summer repeats, the network estimates, so ABC is keen to keep viewers interested until the fall.

"Lost" and its many enigmas have unfolded slowly with the aid of flashbacks that reveal the often-overlapping back stories of each character. Each story line suggests several others and it's that ground that ABC is exploiting in its game.

The Lost Experience was launched during a commercial break in the May 3 broadcast of "Lost" with a real-looking commercial for "The Hanso Foundation."

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