ABC’s Lost has been hailed as one of the most innovative and thrilling shows on television. In many ways, Lost has also been the poster child of entertainment in the “convergence era,” embracing new technologies as tools for discovery rather than threats to intellectual property. In 2005, Disney set a new precedent by offering downloads of Lost on iTunes. Within a year, Lost sold more than six million dollars worth of downloads[1] and was also streamed from the ABC website. William Brooker observes how these developments encourage close scrutiny and analysis.[2]Just as Twin Peaks could not be completely unraveled without the help of a VCR, Lost is often described as “interactive television”[3] since it encourages the use of DVDs, DVRs, and the Internet to freeze frame and re-watch episodes in order to find ‘Easter eggs’ and hidden clues.

When the show first premiered, viewers expected the premise to be quite simple: a plane crash on a remote South Pacific island causes 48 survivors to fight for survival. But after a rampant smoke monster, a polar bear running through the jungle, a sequence of numbers causing unimaginable bad luck, a secretive group called the Others populating the island, and a scientific research project named the Dharma Initiative, no one knew exactly what Lost was going to do next. Furthermore, Lost employs unique narrative strategies. Nearly every episode focuses on a single character and reveals their back-story through a series of flashbacks nested within the events happening on the island. Yet Lost resists a conventional formula, as it toys with seriality, shifts perspectives, and utilizes frequent time jumps.

There are many appealing aspects to the show: an international cast, compelling performances, exciting action sequences, clever dialogue, romance dramas, and of course, plenty of puzzles and mysteries. With its lengthy narrative arcs and multiple character storylines, both Steven Johnson and Jason Mittell have observed that Lost satisfies viewers’ hunger for complex, intellectual, and “quality” entertainment.[4] Due to its complexity however, Lost faced serious challenges as the writer’s strike loomed and the hiatus between seasons grew longer. How could the show maintain its “buzz” and momentum in the off-season?

Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse, the showrunners of Lost, decided they would offer hard-core fans more insights into Lost’s mythology through alternate reality games, mobisodes, novels, and a videogame. Ideally, this transmedia content would amplify the voice of Lost’s evangelists and keep the show’s mysteries fresh. As Damon Lindelof puts it:

Let's say I go to a Bruce Springsteen show, and he plays for four hours instead of two hours. Why? What is he getting out of it? Your ticket price is exactly the same. But what happens is, you go to work the next morning, and you say, I just saw the greatest fucking show of my life.”[5]

This suggests that by dispersing Lost’s narrative across media platforms, Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse hoped hard-core fans would not only gain a greater appreciation for Lost, but they would also hype up the show and encourage non-fans to catch up. (which would not be too difficult given that every episode of Lost is available on ABC.com) Yet the Lost producers have learned from the mythology-driven shows that came before it, as Carlton Cuse comments:

What worries us about X-Files as a model…is that the show ran for nine years. Sustaining the mythology of that show ultimately led to it being frustrating for the fans…. [Lost's] mythology has to be accessible enough to casual fans, but also involving enough so loyal viewers feel like they're being fed.[6]

The X-Files, of course, attempted to balance casual and hard-core viewers by combining episodic tendencies (with a monster of the week format) and serial threads (with an over-arching conspiracy). Lost attempts a much more ambitious strategy. Rather than altering its narrative structure, Lost’s producers offer ancillary content to “feed hard-core fans” more information on the mythology. At the same time, the producers assure casual fans that they only need to watch the television show to understand Lost.[7] In this chapter, I will evaluate Lost’s attempts to achieve this balance. By examining the development of Lost’s transmedia universe, I will build on my proposed model in Chapter 3 and offer more specific strategies for applying transmedia storytelling to television.

[1] Lowry, Tom. “Network finds marketing paradise with Lost.” BusinessWeek. 24 July 2006. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_30/b3994072.htm>
[2] Brooker, Will. “Television Out of Time: Watching Cult Shows on Download.” Reading Lost: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show.  Ed. Roberta Pearson. London: IB Tauris, 2009.
[3] Askwith, Ivan. Reconceptualizing Television.
[4] Rauch, Peter. “Is Popular Culture Good for You?” 6 October 2005.  <http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums/popular_culture.htm>
[5] Poniewozik, James. “Why the Future of Television is Lost” Time Magazine. 24 September 2006. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1538635-3,00.html>
[6] Jensen, Jeff. “What to do? Lessons from Cult TV Shows.” Entertainment Weekly. 11 April 2005. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1046376,00.html>
[7] The producers say the only true canon is the show itself. In Jensen, Jeff. “'Lost': Mind-Blowing Scoop From Its Producers.” Entertainment Weekly. 20 February 2008. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20179125_5,00.html>

Posted by Aaron Smith on July 5, 2009
Tags: Uncategorized

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