‘Lost’ charts its own path

ABC drama stays afloat during strike

Over the past three years, the castaways on “Lost” have managed to survive killer polar bears, competition from “American Idol” and some of the most complicated storylines in network TV history. But this year, they’re facing what may be their toughest enemy yet: the writers strike.

The WGA walkout has put a major monkey wrench in what had been a carefully crafted master plan for “Lost,” designed to take the series through a pre-announced 2010 conclusion. But the strike has forced the net to change all that, while also resulting in a risky timeslot shift and a downsized PR campaign.

As ominous as this sounds, all is not lost for “Lost.”

The skein has proven to be a remarkably resilient weapon for ABC, an enduring hit that’s managed to thrive in the era of digital video recorders. It’s become a poster child for the power of new media to expand a brand beyond the TV screen, dominating the iTunes sales charts and spinning off all manner of Internet and mobile phone extensions.

And “Lost” has also helped redefine sci-fi for primetime, moving the genre beyond the geek core that carried “Star Trek” and “The X-Files” for so many years.

“It’s sort of stealth sci-fi,” says Sci Fi general manager Dave Howe, whose cabler begins airing “Lost” repeats this fall. “It’s never marketed as a sci-fi show, and a lot of people wouldn’t even describe it as one. It hits the sweet spot of what I call the new sci-fi.”

Bottom line: While launching “Lost” this season could be tough, viewers aren’t about to abandon this island any time soon.

“If there is any show where people watch the show and not the time period, it’s ‘Lost,'” says ABC exec VP Jeff Bader.

While he acknowledges moving the show to Thursday is a bit of a challenge, the strike has actually made things easier on that front.

“It’ll have a huge advantage because it’ll be the only original scripted show in the time period,” he says.

ABC also faces another formidable challenge in pleasing the show’s rabid fans, who aren’t shy in sharing their concerns over the show.

“It’s held to a different standard,” Bader says. “The audience feels it’s much more their show and not the network’s show. People are unforgiving if it’s perceived to go in a wrong direction, and it’s a personal affront when we schedule the show in a way they don’t like.”

Still, things were supposed to be different for “Lost.”

Just months before the strike, ABC announced that it was ordering three repeat-free, 16-episode seasons of the show, leading to a spring 2010 finale. It was a radical strategy with virtually no precedent in broadcast TV: killing a show in its prime, three years in advance.

“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 said at the time. “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.”

While the end date for “Lost” remains the same, the strike could mess up just how those episodes unspool.

Only eight scripts for the new “Lost” season were in the can when the strike began. Hungry for fresh programming, Alphabet has opted to start airing those segs this week, even though there’s a real chance of a long break between the eighth and ninth episodes of the show.

Days after the strike began, creator Damon Lindelof made it clear he didn’t like that scenario.

“That would not be ideal,” he said in November. “Shows move at their own speed. You design the speed based on the length of the season, and if that season is cut short, you careen out of control.”

Fox faced the same problem with “24,” another show designed to play out a specific arc over the course of the season. The net’s decided to put the show on hold until the strike was resolved.

Of course, Fox could easily afford to hold “24.” It has the juggernaut of “American Idol” and the Super Bowl to get it through winter.

ABC, by contrast, has no big football games and a slew of serialized shows that don’t repeat well, factors that have caused the net to slip into fourth for the season following a first-place finish in the fall. Launching “Lost” as planned was a no-brainer.

If the strike ends in the next week or two, it’s possible all 16 of this season’s episodes could air by the end of May sweeps. If it takes a month or more to wrap, however, ABC may end up condensing the planned 16 segs into as few as 11 or 12 episodes — or simply decide to hold all eight until next season.

Either way, in November Lindelof worried that fans could be annoyed by a short season, just as they rebelled last season when ABC split “Lost” into two cycles for its second season.

Bader isn’t concerned.

“I think the question is, will they be satisfied at the end of however long the run is, and I think they will be,” exec says.

Still, the strike poses other challenges. Two of the series’ best PR weapons — showrunners Lindelof and Carlton Cuse — are boycotting publicity.

“I’m a writer on strike, and it’s enormously painful not to be able to sell our show, because we’re very excited about the episodes we’ve produced,” Lindelof told Daily Variety last week. “But part of the strike is, we can’t do any publicity for the show.”

Marketing, however, has been as intense as ever.

In developing the promotional campaign, marketing chief Mike Benson collaborated last year with Lindelof and Cuse — pre-strike — in developing this year’s themes.

The key message? Even if you haven’t watched “Lost” in a while, now’s the time to jump back in.

“The finale (from last May) advanced the story so much that the other side of the campaign is bringing back people who have watched ‘Lost’ but fell out of the habit,” Benson says.

That finale — which revealed, via “flash-forwards,” that some of the castaways do, in fact, escape the island — repped such a turning point in “Lost” lore that it actually makes it easier to market this year, Benson says.

“All you need to know is the plane crashed, and now they’re getting off the island,” he says. “We don’t need to say much more than that.”

Unlike past years, ABC’s decision to hold “Lost” back until February also gave Benson and his team the opportunity to draw up an elaborate campaign, and fine-tune it along the way.

“Time was definitely on our side here,” he says. “The more time we have to market and create work with the show’s producers, the better job we can do. It makes for a more compelling campaign.”

The delayed launch has also allowed “Lost” to bow with a global campaign, as the show’s fourth season will launch at almost the same time in markets across the globe. Outlets in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere have all adopted the ABC campaign, with some local tweaks.

Then there’s the other big message: “Lost’s” move to Thursday, something the Alphabet has been hyping with a non-stop on-air bug for the past week. Benson says his team took notes from ABC’s earlier successful move of “Grey’s Anatomy” to the night.

“We don’t want to take it for granted that people will just know what night ‘Lost’ is on,” he says.

Benson isn’t concerned about the short season. As for the smaller viewer circulation at the web — most other scripted fare is in repeats and the net’s reality replacements aren’t doing big numbers — Benson compares it to promoting programming in the summer.

“Just because there’s a strike doesn’t mean my life has changed at all,” Benson says. “We look at this, if the numbers are off it’s no different than summer. We are spending money and really trying to make a go of these things.”

Sci Fi’s Howe isn’t worried about how the strike will impact “Lost.”

“If you’ve built a loyal fan base for a show, they’re going to seek it out and find it,” he says. “I think they’ll be completely fine.”