By Tom Lowry
Who killed Laura Palmer? Remember that burning question, the one ABC had all of America pondering endlessly 16 years ago? The network caused a sensation in 1990 when it first aired Twin Peaks, the bizarre serial drama created by David Lynch. The show was a trailblazer in keeping its audience riveted to the plot and characters well after its final scene aired every week on Thursday nights. Twin Peaks became a franchise for ABC and a brand unto itself (Twin Peaks festivals are still held today). Other television shows that have become franchises, from CSI to Law & Order, trod in Twin Peaks' footsteps.
Today networks face enormous new challenges to create similar excitement—and again ABC is blazing a trail. The loyalty to networks and their power to capture a significant share of what people watch is fading. A recent poll by Bolt Media showed that only a quarter of 16- to 34-year-olds could name all four of the Big Networks. But by taking a fresh approach using new media to create buzz and interest, ABC has managed to replicate its Twin Peaks magic with its hit show Lost, which is centered around plane crash survivors on a tropical island. It is creating a blueprint that other networks are using to think way beyond just TV. “ABC obviously does not see this as just a TV show,” says Dan Hill, a new-media designer and author of the “cityofsound” blog where he frequently offers his views on TV. “[The network] sees all of media as the canvas for the show.”
ABC broke new ground using a sophisticated layer of producer podcasts, fake sites, series downloads, and fan outreach to foster a digital franchise. Even before ABC first aired the show in Sept. 2004, the producers two months earlier debuted it before 3,000 mostly tech-crazed young guys at the popular annual comics convention Comic-Con in San Diego (George Lucas tested Star Wars there in 1977). By then the first fan site, www.lost-tv.com, was up and running, initiating fans to the story and characters well ahead of its first showing on TV. Before too long, fans were chattering about Lost on their own online blogs. Once the show was determined to be a hit in the first few weeks, drawing more than 15 million viewers for each episode on average, Lost's producers started their own Web site and blog, putting themselves in the vanguard of Hollywood players connecting directly with fans. “We realized what we had was three things that most shows never have collectively,” says Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a former supervising producer and a writer on Lost who just left the show in May. “We had mass appeal, cult appeal, and critical appeal.” And, of course, the perfect demographics—tech-savvy kids, mostly male, 16 to 34.
Lost's real breakout, though, came during last year's summer hiatus. ABC knew it had to do something to keep its audience engrossed, but it wanted to avoid hokey contests and sweepstakes. Instead, tapping into the fanatic interest in plot details that had been demonstrated online, the producers buried the Web address of the airline for the crashed plane, Oceanic Airlines, in the season finale. Viewers saw it and immediately flocked to the site created by ABC. Then the producers piled on another Web site, called “the Hanso Foundation,” a mysterious organization that is an ongoing part of the plot.
In parallel, dozens and dozens of blogs and chat forums sprang up, created by fans to share theories. A Lost magazine was created and there's even a “Lostpedia,” a replica of online user-generated Wikipedia, that is dedicated solely to all things Lost. ABC continued to do its part to fuel that discussion by creating podcasts that featured the producers and actors, and creating tie-ins to the show that the fans could sniff out. In one scene this year, the Hurley character is seen reading the manuscript for a book whose title is Bad Twin by Gary Troup. The book, it turns out, really exists and is available on Amazon; it was created by the show's producers and published by a division of ABC parent Walt Disney Co. (DIS ) Demand was so high for the suspense novel that it made The New York Times (NYT ) and Amazon (AMZN ) best-seller lists for fiction.
And it kept the tie-ins coming. When Disney became the first Hollywood studio to offer downloads over iTunes last October, Lost was one of the select five shows it chose to offer for sale. Since then, it has sold 3 million downloads of the show, reaping more than $6 million so far ($1.99 an episode, $34.99 for the season—25 episodes). Lost was also part of the successful experiment that ABC ran to offer free, ad-supported videos online; that streamed 11 million total videos.
As the show prepared to complete its second season with a blitz of publicity, from magazine cover stories to huge takeouts in newspapers, ABC was readying its plan for this summer. In May, ABC partnered with 19 other networks around the globe to relaunch the “Hanso Foundation” site as part of an alternative reality game called The Lost Experience. Fresh clues are served up via Web sites, voicemails, and newspaper ads, while alternative storylines are offered up with characters all its own. The actor who plays the character of Hugh McIntyre, PR person for the Hanso Foundation, appeared in late May on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. ABC and Lost producers are tightly guarding any data related to fan response to The Lost Experience. They won't even say whether it will wrap up before the start of the third season in the fall.
The folks at ABC say their own Lost experience has taught them you can no longer think just about TV. Michael Benson, a senior vice-president for marketing at ABC Entertainment, says Lost “is like a candy store of marketing. We could have just done on-air promos and taken the occasional ad in TV Guide. But we thought, 'What about TiVo, DVDs, the iPod, and the Internet?' They are all huge opportunities to drive people back to TV.”
Lowry is a senior writer with BusinessWeek in New York