Will 'Lost' Ratings Plunge Doom Series?

The Associated Press
Friday, February 16, 2007; 6:08 PM

LOS ANGELES -- The show was smart and intriguingly spiked with supernatural and sci-fi twists. It featured hot new stars who graced glossy magazine covers _ until the ratings tumbled. So much for "The X-Files," which enjoyed a nine-year run before misguided plots and a time slot change eroded its appeal. Flash forward to today and you'll find its counterpart in "Lost," another spooky, cerebral, sexy show _ which may end up killed off before its time.

"`Lost' is the tragedy of the season," said Marc Berman, TV analyst for Media Week Online as well as a fan aggrieved by what he considers ABC's bungled handling of a favorite show. "They really prematurely put the nail in the coffin. It's too late to save it."

The saga of plane-crash survivors stranded on a dangerous and surreal island once drew an impressive 20 million-plus viewers as it helped raise ABC from ratings purgatory, gained cultural-phenomenon status and won the 2005 Emmy for best drama. But eight episodes into its third season, "Lost" has taken a painful nosedive, with an audience of 14.5 million for its Feb. 7 episode and 12.8 million _ its lowest ever _ for this week's show.

"Lost" will return for one more season, Berman predicted, and then likely sink from sight. (ABC declined requests for comment.)

Like Fox's "The X-Files," "Lost" has been pelted with viewer complaints (especially on many formerly adoring Web sites) about confusing plots and dangling mysteries _ who the ominous "Others" are; whether the survivors are part of an elaborate scientific experiment; what is real, imagined, important or trivial. It has endured scheduling changes that were intended to help but ended up hurting, including a prolonged midseason absence that Berman called "suicide" and a move to 10 p.m. EST Wednesday.

Also like "The X-Files," "Lost" proved that offbeat tales and characters can mean a limited shelf life.

"Whenever you get outside one of the big three franchises _ cops, doctors or lawyers _ and into the more high-concept shows, they tend to burn bright but burn out faster," said veteran network executive Tom Nunan, now a TV and film producer ("Crash," "The Illusionist").

"Our expectations are higher, they're expected to reach greater milestones in a more original fashion," said Nunan, a follower of the show who believes it still deserves hit status.

"The X-Files" managed to maintain ratings growth into season five and didn't crash until its final year, 2001-02. "Lost" is slumping badly in year three.

"Viewers have become very unhappy with the show because they've left people hanging for too long," Berman said. "They've opened up too many cans of worms and haven't resolved enough issues."

Taking the focus away for long stretches from lead characters including Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Locke (Terry O'Quinn) and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) is another fan grievance, voiced even by those who feel warmly toward "Lost."

"You won't see characters for a bit, then you see them again and you have to recollect what was going on," said Chris Becker, 43, of Newport Beach.

But Becker, who admits to a fondness for science fiction, said he intends to stick with "Lost" to the last: "You're this far into it, you want to see how it ends."

That final chapter should have been years off for a property which, along with "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," helped ABC (owned by Walt Disney Co.) regain ratings traction and buzz. The network tried to protect "Lost," moving it out of the way this month of returning Fox juggernaut "American Idol" at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Switching "Lost" to 10 p.m. also created a stronger lead-in for lucrative local evening newscasts, important for ABC and its affiliate stations.

"The networks own a lot of affiliates. Strategically, as a business plan it's a little more clever than some people are giving it credit for," said Nunan, who was president of the now-defunct UPN network and worked at ABC, Fox and NBC.

But he dings ABC for failing to provide a strong lead-in for "Lost," which now follows either its own reruns or sitcoms. Another challenge: There's a smaller pool of viewers available during the 10 p.m. time slot than earlier in prime-time.

The series' producers said earlier this year they don't want to outstay their welcome, as they believe "The X-Files" did, and that they were talking with ABC about setting an end date for "Lost."

Certainly, however, no one had anything immediate in mind.


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