'Lost's Ratings Steadily Fall, Even as the Series Remains the Top Show on the Net
'Lost's Ratings Steadily Fall, Even as the Series Remains the Top Show on the Net
The times they are a changing. As industry watchers are well aware the television networks have been deeply concerned for some time about the encroachment of newer media onto their turf. Every new cable or premium channel, video game console or website that draws attention and excitement potentially does so at their expense. Part of the solution they’ve gravitated towards is going digital themselves, making series available online through a variety of channels, some free and some pay. But two news bulletins released today about Lost illustrate the reasons it’s growing more complicated to assess or describe how well a series is doing.

The good news, according to World Screen, is that ABC’s online expansion has so far been a success. Last month nine out of the ten most commonly downloaded television series online were furnished by ABC.com.  Dancing with the Stars was March’s top earner, garnering twice the numbers of any other series with three million unique viewers. But Lost finished second in the country with 1.4 million. That may not sound like a lot when compared with Nielson rating figures in the tens of millions, but it’s more than you think.

Lost was the country’s most digitally beloved program overall with 35.8 million downloads for the month of March. That’s more views than the series got on television (with the three new episodes combined for 29 million viewers.) So while less than a seventh as many people watched Lost online as watched the March 4 episode “LaFleur” on television those same people watched more often. Unless one believes that downloading TV off the Internet is going to become less common it’s reasonable to speculate that those numbers may grow increasingly on the downloads side.

Now the bad news. Lost’s television numbers are down overall and falling. Last season the series averaged 17.1 million viewers a week over the abbreviated 13 episode run. This season that number is down to 10.2 million viewers an episode. For the past four weeks in a row Lost has failed to hit 10 million. How scary is that for Lost’s producers? Not even one new episode of the series (not counting clip shows) had ever failed to hit ten million before.

Would it be sensationalistic to speculate that ABC’s own online coverage is drawing enough viewers away from their broadcast coverage to make an impact? Well, ‘impact’ is a relative term, but one could easily overestimate the direct connection between the stories in a search for literary symmetry. Even if all 1.4 million unique viewers watching Lost on ABC.com had, at some point, stopped watching the series on television to focus exclusively on the Internet their efforts combined would still only account for a fraction of the damage. Together they could not have put Lost over the ten million mark last week.

Given that World Screen’s numbers would suggest the average online viewer downloaded 25 Lost video clips and materials a piece it’s not unreasonable to think some of them may have been big enough fans to watch the broadcast also, meaning their online views should be counted as a benefit rather than part of the problem.

Lost likely didn’t benefit from going up against the NCAA Playoffs in the month of March, but that’s a poor excuse since the series faces the same problem every Spring. One unknown variable is the number of people who are downloading the series online from sources other than ABC.com - websites like YouTube and TV Links which offer bootlegged downloads. But there’s a more likely possibility.

Since the real leak seems to have sprung early on in season four, with ratings gradually decreasing throughout, viewers’ negative reaction to the writer’s strike and to the creative problems caused by many series’ botched seasons may still be having an impact on the series.

Unfortunately for the networks even if primetime series are being hurt by a public relations disaster that will eventually get smoothed over that’s still a long term problem, especially for Lost. Since the densely woven drama’s emphasis on subtle clues and the fans’ memory of past episodes the seven million or so viewers who dropped out since the beginning of last season may find the task of getting caught up to speed daunting enough they never get back on the broadcast schedule. If that’s the case then Lost’s planned end after next season may come at an appropriate time, and producers may have to hope that they continue to add viewers gradually though DVDs and, yes,  Internet downloads.

-Henry Jenkins, BuddyTV Staff Writer
(Image courtesy of ABC)