By Jonathan Webdale 25-09-2014
As the 2004 fall season got underway, excitement at Disney/ABC Television Group boiled over. Execs at the US broadcast network and its sister studio knew they had a rare thing on their hands: not one but two new hit shows.
Lost and Desperate Housewives delivered ABC its best ratings in years. A pair of lavish, ambitious, highly stylized episodic dramas crashed into the schedules at a time when airwaves were dominated by procedurals, reality and a growing cacophony of talent contests.
They arrived in an environment where ad-skipping technology was beginning to ask serious questions of the traditional broadcast business model, while internet piracy – already rife – was challenging perennial revenue from international release windows.
As overseas buyers started falling over themselves and their chequebooks to secure rights to the two most refreshing titles to emerge from US pilot season in years, Disney/ABC knew it had to act fast to maximize earnings potential.
The complex, layered, frequently incoherent narrative of Lost lent itself in particular to a new array of multiplatform extensions, with mobile TV the buzz of the industry. Nokia had just introduced its first touch-screen device while over at Apple, Steve Jobs showed off a premium version of the fourth generation iPod featuring, for the first time, a colour screen.
What Apple was working on behind the scenes, however, was to have a far greater impact on the TV industry. Lost and Desperate Housewives offered the perfect vehicle for a demonstration and an inner quorum of Disney execs were privy to one ahead of the shows’ second season.
Just three days after Jobs had shown Bob Iger, Anne Sweeney and others what Lost would look like on the then top secret video iPod, they signed a deal that was to send the first digital distribution domino toppling.
Lost’s return on September 21, 2005 set new records for ABC – 23.4 million viewers representing the network’s biggest fall premiere since NYPD Blue in 1996.
With such incredible momentum behind the series, it came as a complete shock to ABC’s affiliates when on October 12, Iger – two weeks after taking over from Michael Eisner as Disney CEO – joined Jobs on stage at the California Theatre in San Jose. The pair announced that both Lost and Desperate Housewives would be made available ad-free via the latest version of iTunes and the new iPod for US$1.99 per episode a day after airing on TV.
The local networks that had already signed up for the series had been kept in the dark about Disney’s plans and feared that such downloads would dent their own ratings. But Disney held its nerve and continued to use the two shows to push boundaries.
Trials of an ABC broadband player got under way in the summer of 2006, marking another TV first, with Lost and Desperate Housewives this time offered for free the day after broadcast, featuring integrated, unskippable ads.
Meanwhile, around the world, the Mouse House was collapsing the release windows. In the UK, Channel 4 acquired rights to the first season and – as was common at the time – debuted the show almost 11 months after its US premiere. By the time the second season came around, the gap had narrowed to less than nine months. When Sky1 outbid C4 for rights to the third and proposed fourth seasons, it was able to announce it would be showing episodes within a week of their US airing. This was whittled down to just three days by season six – the series’ last installment – with the finale on May 24, 2010 simulcast at 05.00 GMT, in synch with ABC’s West Coast feed at 21.00 on May 23.
Netflix takes much of the credit these days for pioneering binge viewing but Lost box sets consistently claimed the number one spot in the DVD sales charts, albeit riding on the coat tails in this category of Fox’s 24 and HBO’s The Sopranos.
Lost, along with Desperate Housewives and later NBC’s Heroes, arguably did more to secure the future of serialized drama than House of Cards, The Wire, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones put together.
It’s a bold claim but they broke new ground in digital distribution and provided the fodder for myriad multiplatform innovations – spin-off online and mobile shorts that filled the void between seasons, alternate reality games designed to further immerse fans in the fiction. In the case of Lost there was The Lost Experience and the Dharma Initiative, while Heroes had a string of graphic novels and the Heroes Evolutions virtual world.
Much of the appetite for such outlandish experiments in audience engagement was snuffed out in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. TV budgets and digital extensions were reigned in and concurrent advances in video-on-demand meant no gaps between episodes or seasons to fill.
But through Lost and Desperate Housewives, Disney arguably laid the foundations for the television landscape of today.
High quality, paid-for drama has proven its resilience, despite all the predictions of TV’s demise. The US networks and studios have to a large extent recalibrated their business models to make for a more satisfying consumer experience.
Content is available on more platforms and devices than ever before, with an 11-month wait for shows in other countries now inconceivable.
The internet may have destroyed the music business as once was but the TV industry saw the tidal wave coming and reacted quickly – Disney, with the help of Steve Jobs, more effectively than anyone.
Lost was the right series at the right time. Its sprawling fantasy, scope for interpretation and sheer good looks making it a gift to a younger generation with little loyalty to television and a thirst for new forms of entertainment.
It allowed Disney – and others – to find out what worked in the digital universe and to dispense with the things that didn’t. It embodied the kind of multi-layered storytelling that has proven TV’s unerring allure – perhaps more engaging than any dual-screen experience or social media add-on. Television hasn’t exactly conquered the internet but – with the help of a few inexplicable polar bears and a smoke monster – it has proven itself a more enduring medium than many expected.