How to Fix the TV Show Lost

New York Magazine says the solution to the problem with never-ending shows like Lost is to craft the TV equivalent of a novella: the limited-run show.

Now let’s imagine an alternate reality in which, say, Lost was designed to run for only two seasons. Rather than getting an increasingly tedious shaggy-dog story, we’d get 48 episodes of tightly plotted, expertly interwoven suspense. Viewers would be both more willing to sign on at the beginning (knowing their investment will pay off) and more inclined to buy DVDs later (either as catch-up for newbies or as a satisfying boxed set). Sure, the show won’t syndicate well, but shows like Lost don’t syndicate well anyway. And the series finale would be huge–the kind of event TV network executives drool over.

I think this is a great idea. I also think that this will never happen for the reasons the article states. Too bad.

[via Backwards City]

9 thoughts on “How to Fix the TV Show Lost”

  1. As a victim of Twin Peaks, I can agree with the author’s premise that a well thought out limited run series would result in higher viewership for a producer. However, I do not agree that the series would not syndicate well. How many times do people watch movies that they’ve already seen again, provided the content is worthwhile? I believe the author is more right than they are allowing. This concept can successfully be translated to big budget movies as well. While LOTR had 3 explicit books to work with, the ability to shoot a number of movies at once and then release them at times of traditionally strong movie viewership should not be lost at the major studios. Would you consider the SciFi channel’s version of Dune to be a testament to this concept? Are there others?

  2. I, too, am a victim of Twin Peaks. Did we meet at the recovery meetings? :)

    Syndication is a funny thing. In days of old, a series had to reach the milestone 100th episode to be eligible for syndication. I think this was a minimum requirement set by the networks. In these modern days of cable channels out the wazoo and yank-‘em-off-the-air within a three-episode trial period, the norm seems to be market the crap out of the “entire series” DVD within 6 months of being canceled instead of a dinnertime run on the 2nd class networks. There are exception, as always. Trek: TOS had a sixty-something episode library that’s been syndicated and even spawned spin-offs. And there was a time slot on Bravo TV (I think) dedicated to limited-run shows. But has anyone syndicated the 14-episode run of the bestest TV series in the whole ‘dang universe, Firefly, only to see repeat re-runs every three weeks? I personally prefer owning the DVDs in that case.

    Not sure which concept you mean, exactly, on the Dune question. Do you meant that the SciFi Channel seems to run it regularly and to a consistently big audience? :-S

  3. It won’t syndicate well because the shows that do best in syndication are the ones that are almost impulse viewings. For example, people will flip through the dial and see an episode of Seinfeld and stop to watch. It’s not much time invested and you’re pretty sure to get a laugh. It isn’t as easy for an episodic show like Lost or Babylon 5 to garner viewers that way.

    That said, one interesting feature of syndicating a show like Lost is that it can run nightly – allowing people to get a pretty healthy dose of the show each week. Or perhaps a marathon session on a weekend that shows nearly the entire first season (and thanks to DVRs, I bet even the ones that air at unfriendly times would get watched.)

  4. The Dune Miniseries question was asking if anyone thinks that it is an example of successful novella or limited-run show according to the author’s definition. Maybe not as that series was based on a book which had an ending . . . or did it? I believe it did but Herbert’s son seems to . . . well, anyway . . .

    As far as syndication goes, haven’t there been series that have been shown in their entirety on other networks? Maybe series are better suited tot a form of self-syndication like the example Scott has given. Many series have had marathon weekends to cast the viewership net a little wider to give non viewers a chance to catch up.

  5. I suppose it’s a question of duration, eh? I took the article as suggesting more of a 1- or 2-season weekly series – say 40 hours total – instead of a 4-hour miniseries. A limited run series has a much broader canvas than a miniseries, but it has a definite end in sight.

    Along these lines, I read recently that Tim Kring, the man behind Heroes, is winging it plotwise week by week. There is no longterm story resolution and that worries me some.

  6. Surely Babylon 5 epitomised this idea? But then the TV networks still managed to screw it up by not confirming the 5th series.

    The BBC just announced that Life On Mars will end with season 2, which is great because my main worry with the show was that there would be no resolution or answers.

    It seems to me that US TV shows are always ruined by external factors:

    – The obsession with ratings (presumably because of the need to get advertisers?)

    – That syndication malarky that doesn’t really translate well to UK TV.

  7. This is already done in Japan, and its done via the anime route. Many anime series are limited run, usually about 26 episodes, then its over. Of course, when a show becomes successful then you get the same type of issues with the never ending series. Heck, the show One Piece is well over 100 episodes.

    I think Heroes could do something cool here. I think it would be cool if each season was looked at as a comic series, with a problem to be overcome. This would eliminate the whole never ending issue, with each season a self-contained story that may, or may not, build on previous seasons.

    Not every show lends itself to this approach though. Heroes is unique in that, being based on the comic format, it can follow that structure. Most others can’t. I’m not sure about LOST. But then again, I’m still watching LOST and I don’t really have any issues because I know what limitations they are working under and I have allowed for that in my perception of the show.

    Oh, and Firefly is/was syndicated on SciFi. I know, shocking. An actual SF show on SciFi. I think the exec responsible for that decision has been sacked…

  8. The original story eludes to 24 – but dismisses it as a cliffhanger. 24 is a perfect example of what networks should be doing. When you start watching, you KNOW Fox is committed to 24 consecutive episodes with no repeats. Each season is a standalone story, even though some characters carry across. Syndication potentials aren’t as good as they are for Friends or Seinfeld, but DVD sales are huge and I’m sure we will see networks run viewings for years to come.

    Fox is also attempting a similar concept with Fashion House and Desire which are based on popular latin american telenovelas.

    The biggest challenge with this concept is that any network attempting it would HAVE to commit to showing the whole series in order. Nothing disenchants potential viewers than the cancellation of a series 3 episodes in. I’ve been burned by this so many times that I won’t even watch most shows until it’s been around at least a year. The suggested novella approach would cure this. I would be willing to commit to a show and watch it if I knew it wouldn’t be a never ending story and I could count on all of the episodes being aired.

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