ABC hit expires in 2010

In a potentially paradigm-shifting play, ABC has agreed to let the producers of “Lost” set an expiration date for the series — three years in the future.

Skein will now wrap after the production of 48 additional episodes that will be divided into three, shortened 16-episode seasons. Final episode — the show’s 119th — will air during the 2009-10 season.

In conjunction with the advance order, “Lost” showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have inked hefty new multi-year overall deals with ABC Television Studio to continue with the series until the end. Duo had made setting a wrap date for the show a condition for staying.

Lindelof and Cuse had wanted “Lost” to end after two more seasons. They’re essentially still getting their wish: The 48 episodes they’ll produce over the next three years is the same number the show produced during its first two seasons.

ABC execs, however, came up with a way to keep “Lost” on its sked for three more seasons. What’s more, the 16-episode arcs will run without repeats (a la “24″), allowing the Alphabet to make the show more of an event.

“In considering the powerful storytelling of ‘Lost,’ we felt this was the only way to give it a proper creative conclusion,” ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson said.

“I always said that we would allow the series to grow and give viewers the most compelling hour possible,” he added. “And, due to the unique nature of the series, we knew it would require an end date to keep the integrity and strength of the show consistent throughout, and to give the audience the payoff they deserve. “

McPherson also acknowledged that getting Lindelof and Cuse to reup “was critical to me and the network.”

ABC Television Studio prexy Mark Pedowitz shared that sentiment.

“We wanted to make sure we had the team responsible for its success in place for not only the run of the show, but so that each of their future series creations have a home at the studio after ‘Lost,’ ” Pedowitz said.

J.J. Abrams, who co-created “Lost” with Lindelof, defected to Warner Bros. TV last year and has been focusing on a new slate of TV and film projects, including the revival of the “Star Trek” franchise for Paramount Pictures. He told Daily Variety that he fully supported the advance wrap decision.

“It is the right choice for the series and its viewers,” he said via an email message. “It takes real foresight and guts to make a call like this. I applaud ABC and Touchstone for making this happen.”

Lindelof and Cuse, who are putting the finishing touches on the third-season finale, released a joint statement praising what they termed “a bold and unprecedented move for ABC” and thanking McPherson and Pedowitz for making it.

Cuse added that he hoped more shows will be able to follow the “Lost” lead and declare an end date.

“I think for story-based shows like ‘Lost,’ as opposed to franchise-based shows like ‘ER’ or ‘CSI,’ the audience wants to know when the story is going to be over,” Cuse wrote. “When J.K. Rowling announced that there would be seven ‘Harry Potter’ books, it gave the readers a clear sense of exactly what their investment would be. We want our audience to do the same.”

Cuse confirmed that devising an exit strategy for “Lost” was key to reupping with ABC Television Studio.

“In making this deal, Damon and I had two priorities: defining an end point for the show and keeping the quality bar high,” Cuse said. “To do that we are both fully committed to the day-to-day running of the show right up until the very end. It’s also why the 16 episodes per year was key for us. Because our show is so mythological, and because, unlike ’24,’ we can’t reset each season, we need the extra time fewer episodes affords us to really plan out the specifics of our storytelling.”

Lindelof and Cuse made public their desire for an end date during the TV Critics Assn. press tour last winter (Daily Variety, Jan. 15).

Cuse and Lindelof also wanted an end date in order to mollify critics of the show who worried producers were simply spinning their wheels as they worked through the show’s layer upon layer of mystery.

ABC execs had already been talking to the producers about the idea, but they seemed taken aback when Lindelof and Cuse made the conversations public.

Indeed, it would be understandable if ABC execs had been initially cool to the concept of an early end date.

After all, with major hits a rarity in the network game, the rule is to keep hits on the air until every last ounce of success has been squeezed from them (e.g., “ER” or “The X-Files”).

And despite relentless media snarking this season — and the fact that “Lost” has lost a chunk of its fall 2005 audience — the series is still a top-15 hit that dominates its 10 p.m. Wednesday timeslot in key demos.

In its third season, it’s still drawing as many young viewers as NBC’s newer, more buzzed-about “Heroes” — and that’s not counting the roughly 2.1 million viewers who watch the show after its live broadcast or via free streaming on ABC.com.

ABC could be establishing a new formula by which nets find success through serving up skeins with more and more audacious concepts but shorter lifespans than the traditional network hit.

Already, the traditional syndie business model — the one that required studios to produce 100 episodes of a show in order to recoup their investment — seems to be fading away in an age of instant downloads and universal streaming.

That may be one reason, according to Lindelof, that McPherson and Pedowitz “never argued that the show should keep going and going. The issue has always been when it would end and how far out in front of that ending should we herald it.”

Now that the end has been announced, Lindelof promised there would be no attempts to extend or continue the “Lost” mythology on air in some other way.

“There will be no extensions or enhancements. That number (48) is absolute,” he said. And “once you begin to see where we’re going, I think the idea of sequels and spinoffs will completely go away.”

So if he, Cuse or Abrams suddenly come up with a killer plot thread that doesn’t fit into the new timeline?

“We’ll do it as a radio play,” Lindelof quipped.

As for “Lost,” show’s end game is expected to kick into high gear later this month with the broadcast of the season finale. Details of the plot are under wraps, but a person who has read the script described it as a major shakeup to the plot.

“It changes everything,” the person said.

Nothing’s official yet, but ABC has all but said that the fourth season of “Lost” won’t premiere until January or February of next year.

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