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CONFESSION: How 'Lost' lost me (and so many millions of other viewers)
May 24, 2010  | By Diane Werts
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So how does Sunday night's big Lost finale stack up historically in terms of the ratings? While the 2 1/2 hour climax certainly monopolized media attention, it sure didn't dominate viewership the way broadcast bye-byes used to. Monday morning's early Nielsen overnights showed an 8.7 rating and a 13 percent share of the audience, as reported at our friend Marc Berman's daily online must-read The Programming Insider. That works out to 10 million households tuned in to the May 23 Lost finale. [UPDATED BELOW WITH MORE RATINGS DETAILS, AT END]

By comparison, CBS' oft-cited M*A*S*H finale pulled 50 million households and a whopping 77 percent share of viewership in February 1983, and remains the top-ranked scripted finale ever. NBC's more recent send-off for Cheers in May 1993 drew 42 million households for a 64 share. (Going all the way back to August 1967 reveals TV's first cliffhanger resolution of ABC's The Fugitive got 26 million households and a 72 share.)

TV viewership has fragmented in so many directions -- not just among channels but also DVD, VOD, video games and streaming online options -- that insider Berman ranks the Lost finale among the night's ratings "winners." But it was joined in that category by NBC's competing two-hour finale of the much less classic The Celebrity Apprentice, where the final half-hour pronouncing the season's winner earned a 7.6 rating and 12 share -- hot on the heels of ABC's super-duper event.

So much for "buzz" as any measure of ratings potential. Of course, Lost has mostly fanatical followers who're likely to re-view the episode online, where it also runs ads, and on DVD/Blu-ray Disc, where the show's studio-network symbiosis brings in more bucks. And as a scripted series, it's even got a TV afterlife in syndication/repeats. Its makers are merry.

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But if the incessant hoopla of recent weeks -- the fawning showbiz-TV features, news reports, magazine covers, online mania, and all the rest -- can't draw anything more than 10 million Americans and a 13 share, what does that say about the state of TV today?

My take would be that it says, don't complicate your drama into something so intricate and internecine that only a small subset of the audience will have the time, energy or interest to follow it. I used to love Lost, but my attention steadily dwindled as the plot's conniptions progressively ramped up.

And they really lost me when the still-inscrutable Others tortured the show's three ostensible central characters in squalid cages in the pouring rain for weeks on end with almost no perceptible plot progress. A story that used to keep opening up like a spring flower suddenly closed down like a Venus Fly Trap. The fresh air of the Hawaii location's natural beauty was overridden by the drama's human depravity, in a creative choice that I still think basically killed the series' mainstream appeal. (Supposedly, the whole Jack-Kate-Sawyer-in-cages thing was meant to attract women to their "exciting" romantic triangle. Dumb condescension, plus sordid execution.)

Lost became a niche show, for clue-tracing junkies, web obsessives and sci-fi fanatics -- and I don't say sci-fi to disparage the genre, since I've always been drawn to the idea-expanding universe of Star Trek, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica and even Syfy's current cult attraction Caprica. But sci-fi has never really worked on the broadcast networks, very well or for very long, and the choice to take that increasingly self-absorbed road sealed any chance the show had to expand its audience.

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I initially admired Lost for its revelatory character study, and continue to appreciate the first half of its run for the probing richness and profound emotions of those portrayals. Going back to re-watch those episodes is still rewarding. But following The Numbers, spotting Dharma clues and all the other minutiae -- that's where Lost lost me, and so many other viewers.

So for me, the finale was anticlimactic, not to mention muddled and maudlin. I just didn't care anymore. The more the music surged to sound "epic," the more the message got "deep," the more ridiculous the whole thing seemed.

In the end, Lost became much ado about nothing. And that's so much less than I expected when I invested those early years of rapt attention in what looked like it would be one of TV's smartest adventures.

The series may indeed be considered a classic judged to operate exquisitely in its own universe.

That's just not a place I care to visit.


UPDATE [Monday, May 24, 6pm ET:

The Hollywood Reporter's Live Feed puts last night's Lost viewership numbers in further perspective.

And THR's James Hibberd offers a crisp finale analysis that sure makes sense to me.

For more detailed Lost finale ratings, and city-by-city numbers, see Marc Berman's more recently updated PI Feedback post.




Jill said:

Yep. You nailed it. Last night, Dave said to me, "hey, you used to really be 'into' that show...?". I used to wait for it every week, but as it got more complicated and I felt like if I missed a week, I was "lost", myself...well, it stopped being "must-see" tv. I kept recording it 'cause I thought I'd eventually want to catch up, but the little snippets I saw made me realize I was even more lost than I had thought. All the flashbacks from universe to universe pretty much killed it, altho I agree with you about the torture shows -- I hated them.

...and this from an admitted sf-fanatic. :-)

Ed Q. said:

Diane (forgive the informality, such is the internet), it is very interesting how different you and David are on this finale; perhaps a point/counterpoint would be in order?

Regardless, as one of the approximately 10 million households that did watch, as well as one of those who invested his time in every episode (though not in any of the enhanced episodes nor in any of the Lostpedia fanaticism), I thoroughly enjoyed the show as a character show. Lindelof and Cuse, I believe, said something like Lost at its essence was a character driven show and not a mystery program and on that level it was tremendous.

However, I also enjoyed the show for the challenging narratives and complexities that required you to not only watch each episode but watch them without distractions (no reading tvworthwatching.com while Lost was on). Far too often, network television has been a race to the bottom with fewer and fewer quality surviving or being introduced each season.

Just a few years ago, I believed we were living in a new golden age of TV drama with FNL, The Wire, Lost, House, Dexter, The Sopranos, Mad Men and more, all on TV at the same time. Now, we are living in an era where DWTS and American Idol are given two night "event" conclusions and network programmers would rather put on reality programming like Wipeout or Shark Tank instead of quality drama or comedy. For this reason alone, Lost deserved my time and admiration.

But Lost wasn't just a show to watch for what it aspired (and sometimes failed) to do but for what it achieved in spite of some of its failings. And that, to quote a far better writer than I, was to show "unforgettable characters and performances, and present a series of such originality" that I will miss it greatly -- even if I never did find out what happened to Walt.

mary w said:

well, I was a somewhat fan--some seasons more and some less, but this season was just confusing and frankly the ending even more so. I didn't "get" what was happening in the sideways world and didn't get mrs. widmore. overall, they played the ending for warm fuzzies, but you can't look beyond that.

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