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Why LOST's Nielsen ratings struggles won't matter much to fans

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February 19th, 2009

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The other day I got an e-mail asking why I hadn't written about the "news" that American Idol would be flip-flopping with Lie To Me and that spelled bad news for LOST because LOST would be going head-to-head with American Idol.   Apparently the story created a frenzy on the Internet,  but that was lost on me to a degree because there was a mini-frenzy in our own comments section weeks ago about it, though honestly, until Hibberd's post, I wasn't aware exactly when it would happen other than knowing it was still weeks in the future.

I'm probably more interested than the next guy to see what happens when the switch occurs.  Hello, this is a site about ratings!  But, I still view all of it as a tempest in a teapot.  Through it all, the ongoing discussion seems to be LOST's struggling ratings will soon struggle more.    Are LOST's ratings struggling?  The question there is relative to what?   There are lot of ways to slice and dice the data, and unfortunately there's no easy way to do anything comprehensive.  If I look at last year's season-to-date average among 18-49 year olds, it's misleading because it includes any in-slot reruns, and so far this year, there have been no reruns.

But LOST's ratings are definitely struggling if it's being measured against its own past performance.  Last year, when LOST aired on a Thursday Valentine's Day night and "only" got a 5.8 rating among 18-49 year olds, people chalked it up to Valentine's Day.   Perhaps a reasonable conclusion since the week before it had pulled a 6.5 rating with adults 18-49.   But then February 21, 2008 came along and it pulled a 5.7 and...it wasn't Valentine's Day anymore.  By the time the season finale rolled around in late May, it had a 4.9 rating with adults 18-49.

The downward trend last year wasn't particularly surprising.  By last year, it was already a serial show in its fourth season that had been off the air for quite some time by the time it came back.  And due to the writer's strike, mostly the first half of last season it ran against repeats of CSI and reality fare like Celebrity Apprentice.

This season, in the four episodes airing prior to last night (February 18, 2009) LOST had pulled the following 18-49 ratings: 5.0, 4.9, 4.7, and 4.4.   Update: but American Idol ran for two hours last Wednesday, and was up against LOST.  Did the numbers go down?  Yes.  Among 18-49 they went down 6%.  Thanks for Jon in the comments for reminding me that I forgot to include that.

It's not a particularly pleasing trend, but until last week, compared to last year's season finale it was performing very well, although compared to last season in the same time frame the numbers were down a bit over 20%.

It's nothing to get ecstatic over, but is it anything to get bummed out about?  Last week, even with the 4.4 rating while going up against American Idol it was still  the #11 show among 18-49 year olds, and the shows ahead of it were two airings of Idol, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Desperate Housewives, CSI, Two and a Half Men, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and Survivor.

Regardless of the absolute numbers, in terms of relative ranking other than Private Practice (which benefited from the Grey's Anatomy crossover), and The Big Bang Theory (which swelled nicely airing at 9:30pm following Two and a Half Men rather than its usual 8pm spot) there was nothing that would make you think, "Oh man, I didn't see that coming!"  OK, maybe being beaten by Survivor was a surprise, but it was the premiere of Tocantins.

I'm very interested to see last night's ratings. If I had more sense, I'd probably wait to see them before writing this, but I predict the time switch for American Idol isn't going to matter much.  This isn't to say it won't matter at all, and that it won't take a hit, and that ABC won't make less money on ad sales, but so far it looks like that was going to be the case anyway, given the downward trend.  But it seems highly improbable that it will take so much of a hit that it won't get to finish its run.  And the ratings won't matter much, because through 5 weeks of release, the season four DVD set for LOST had reportedly sold almost a million units and had generated over $36 million in revenue.

A couple of comparisons, in its first (and only week it was high enough to be included) week of release Moonlight on DVD sold almost 57,000 copies and had almost $1.5 million in sales.  In four weeks of release Battlestar Galactica season 4.0 had sold almost 282,000 units and generate over $9 million in revenue.  Note, the reason LOST looks so much lower on the chart in the BSG link is because that chart is just for 2009 sales, most of the sales of LOST Season 4 DVD happened in 2008.

From its release on 12/9/08 through the end of the year the LOST season four DVD had sold  820,000 units and generated over $30 million in revenue, the second highest revenue for TV DVDs in 2008, trailing only The Office season 4 over a million units and over $32 million in revenue, (LOST would rank 3rd  if you include Planet Earth, The Complete BBC series).  Heroes season two sold over 881,000 units in the last four months of 2008, but generated only just over $22 million (fewer episodes due to the writer's strike, resulting in a lower unit cost).

That was probably more than  anyone wanted to know about DVD sales, but the point is this, facing off against the American Idol behemoth might matter in the ratings, but won't matter in terms of LOST finishing its run until its series finale in fifteen months or so from now in 2010.  Whatever last night's ratings, I really enjoyed the episode, though not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.

 
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