Sci-Futility: Why ‘Heroes’ and ‘Jericho’ will end up like ‘Lost’

There’s been a lot of talk over the last few weeks about how shows like NBC’s ‘Heroes’ or CBS’ ‘Jericho’ are attempting to avoid what happened to ABC’s ‘Lost’. Once one of the most buzzworthy shows on television, it has found itself with lower ratings and a great deal of bitterness from one-time fans. In panel discussions at WonderCon and the Paley Festival, executive producers of both ‘Jericho’ and ‘Heroes’ have been attempting to ensure fans that they won’t be heading down the same road.

Jericho Executive Producer Stephen Chbosky:

“One thing we knew from the beginning is we didn’t want to frustrate the audience by not paying off mysteries, by not answering questions, because we know.”

Heroes Executive Producer Jeph Loeb:

“It was very important to us, unlike a lot of serialized shows — and I think some of that has to do with the people who came on the show from places like ‘Lost’ and ‘Alias’ — that we want our audience to know that when Tim [Kring] started out by staying this was chapter one or volume one, that is exactly what it is.”

Now, while I respect that these producers are trying to be successful and all that, I think they’re giving themselves far too much credit in this scenario. Both of them are boasting that they have been able to do what ‘Lost’ has not, that they’ve discovered the magic formula to keeping fans and viewers happy and smiling for many seasons to come.

However, in all honesty, I think these genre producers are missing the point entirely. They speak as if they’ve learned their lesson, that they’ll never do what Lost has done, that their fans have no reason to worry. However, I’d like to inform these producers that they couldn’t be more wrong. Any serial sci-fi drama like Lost, whether it is Heroes or Jericho or Invasion or Surface, is going to eventually elicit bitterness and anger amongst its audience and critics for a simple reason:

TV Viewers are fickle, fickle beings.

These producers can’t honestly believe that they’ve cured the problem of the standard TV viewer. The reality is that any Sci-Fi drama only has so much of an audience to rely upon, as there aren’t too many sci-fi viewers out there watching network television. In order for such a TV show to succeed, it must rely upon pulling in casual viewers who are just waiting for the new episode of CSI: Miami to come on.

When Lost debuted, it was the first show of its kind in many years, and gained huge mainstream success due to its status as event television. CTV wasn’t even going to air it when it first debuted, believing it to be too obscure in its subject matter. Smartly, they started airing it the following week, but no one could have predicted the amount of success which the show achieved.

However, this success is a double-edged sword because a lot of these watercooler viewers are not, inherently sci-fi viewers. They are your normal CSI folk, choosing only so few shows to watch on a weekly basis, and in the end these viewers are fickle ones. They move from show to show, fad to fad, and in time viewers start to leap away. What I would argue, in this instance, is that there was absolutely nothing which Lost could have done to keep these viewers.

Unlike a show like Grey’s Anatomy or Desperate Housewives, which aren’t reliant on a genre or such thing, Lost was at its core a type of show which was not designed for mainstream success. They could have solved every single one of its mysteries, they could have answers all of the questions, but its basic premise would still have turned away all but its most serious viewers. The show was designed to be a slow build, a character drama with a foundation on science fiction elements; in time, as breaks take place and storylines linger, it’s natural that some people will turn away in comparison to a procedural or structured drama like Grey’s or Desperate Housewives.

Now, I’m not saying Lost didn’t make mistakes in terms of their storylines, but I don’t believe that these are the biggest problem. The show’s problems have been blown out of proportion by these viewers who, honestly, were never invested enough to stick around past the show’s first two seasons anyways. I discussed this phenomenon back in February, but I think it needs to be clarified for Heroes and Jericho producers.

Because, Heroes is going to have the exact same problem in a year or two. Those viewers currently jumping on the show’s bandwagon are building it into a weekly event, and it even survived its Christmas hiatus by working in some solid cliffhangers and the like. The show certainly has a great deal of potential, and is perhaps much faster to embrace its Comic Book/Sci Fi roots, but it is going to run into the same brick wall which Lost finds itself partially embedded in.

It has confusing storylines which makes it hard for viewers to keep up with (Although not to Lost’s level). It has a whole lot of different characters, some more annoying or worse than others, who viewers will want to see on a regular basis. It has a main plot which isn’t always discussed, making for ‘filler’ episodes on a regular basis based on budgets and other issues.

All of these problems are things which will drive casual viewers away over a hiatus, or during a particularly frustrating episode. These Sci-Fi shows have a much smaller core audience to draw from, and the reality is that keeping those casual viewers around is going to prove more and more difficult over time. It doesn’t matter if you answer the main question (In Heroes’ case, I guess it’s Sylar and the bomb), because the next storyline is going to have all of the same problems for these ‘fans’.

Just look at what has already happened to Jericho. Debuting as a solidly performing drama in September, especially for a network like CBS where Threshold had struggled the year previous, the show took a long hiatus in the vein of Prison Break and returned in February to middling returns. The show could answer all the questions they want, but through that hiatus they lost their casual viewers. Now, they did lose these viewers to American Idol, but this just proves how fickle they are.

While Lost may breed more bitterness than other shows based on certain storylines, it’s natural for any serial drama to face these types of challenges. Heroes will never be able to, just by ‘solving mysteries,’ keep all of its fans happy and satiated. Jericho has already proven this point, losing much of its casual viewers against American Idol while a show like Friday Night Lights kept fairly static.

So, the producers of these shows should stop thinking about how to fix Lost’s problems, and instead do their best to promote and maintain their existing audience as Lost is now doing. Lost is at the point where it is stabilizing; the hardcore are left, and much of the casuals have departed for less confusing pastures. As Heroes grows into more of a success, which I believe could happen, they need to be wary of not solving mysteries or resetting storylines, but rather ensuring that their core fans stick around.

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5 Comments

Filed under Heroes, Lost, Ratings, Television

5 responses to “Sci-Futility: Why ‘Heroes’ and ‘Jericho’ will end up like ‘Lost’

  1. Not only do I agree with your analysis, but I want to re-state something for emphasis. Not unlike The X-Files in the 1990s, Lost was a show that seemed destined for hardcore/cult status that inexplicably became a hit. In fact, Lost is even LESS suited to mass consumption than The X-Files ever was. That casual viewers don’t have the patience to keep following Lost three seasons in shouldn’t be surprising; we should be asking ourselves why they ever started watching in the first place and what exactly they were expecting.

    A quick point about Heroes, though, that the comments from Paley hint at. Because it’s structured as a comic book, Heroes has the capacity to do something that Lost really can’t: bring its existing plotlines to a satisfying conclusion and then continue onwards by taking the show’s characters into a completely new direction (in contrast, once Lost’s mysteries are answered, the show is over). I’m sure, for example, that at some point the Heroes are going to unite together into some sort of X-Men like squad, and that will completely change the show’s structure.

    But is this what will magically keep casual viewers interested? It’s funny that Alias is mentioned, since it argues strongly against this point. Alias made a drastic turn 2/3 into its 2nd season and in one fell swoop brought its primary storyline to an end and went off in a new direction to try and simplify the show and attract new viewers. And while it produced one of the best hours of TV I’ve ever seen and gave a show a rush of energy towards the end of the season, in hindsight it has to be viewed as a massive failure – the show never recovered to the same levels it was at prior to the shift and viewership plummeted throughout its final three seasons.

    So I think your main argument is spot on – networks and showrunners need to recognize that these shows have a “casual fan shelf life” and instead of dwelling on it, take advantage of the show’s popularity in the here and now to create as many devoted fans as possible, ones who aren’t going to jump ship when the voyage begins to take a little too long to get to its destination.

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  5. “JERICHO” was probably the best of the three shows you referred to. But it was screwed over by CBS, who didn’t know how to handle its scheduling, due to its dependence on formula crime dramas. “LOST” was good . . . and I’m a fan. But after its first season, it flipped-flopped in the quality of its writing. Which is why its reputation is not as solid as you might think.

    As for “HEROES” . . . eh. I gave it a shot for a season-and-a-half. Thumbs down.

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