The first hour of the final season of ABC's "Lost" has leaked online, and the reaction is not what industry insiders expected.
Though preview content for heavily serialized dramas such as "Lost" are typically and frantically consumed online by fans, the sixth season of the ABC hit has managed to build such an epic level of anticipation that many fans are doing the unthinkable: refusing to watch the leaks.
When the opening scene from the premiere popped up online after a fan promotion Friday, users of one popular social network site voted to "bury" the video.
"Why spoil it now?" wrote one fan with the moniker MyWhiteNoise. "I'd rather watch it in hi-def and surround sound than ruin the surprise and watch some (low-quality) video."
To TV executives, such statements are like something from an alternative universe, the polar-bear opposite of how young, Web-savvy viewers typically respond to content. Fans usually embrace any short cut that skips the linear TV and advertiser-supported experience.
"We never had a show like 'Lost' before that had these kind of fans that love it so much that they don't want to know what happens before the premiere," said Michael Benson, co-executive vice president of marketing at ABC. "Fans feel like they own this thing, just like we do."
On Monday, fan commitment was given an even greater test when the entire premiere episode appeared on YouTube. The video was taken from hand-held cameras discretely shooting during a fan screening on Oahu. The Hawaii event itself was a revelation - can any other TV drama rally 12,000 fans to an island in the South Pacific? Some flew in just to see the 44 minutes of video that US TV channel ABC will air tonight.
Yet when the inevitable YouTube copies appeared Sunday, many videos received only a few hundred hits as online fans registered their lack of interest in crummy bootlegs. "Are people so impatient that they would rather watch a cell phone camera version of the 'Lost' premiere than wait one day?" Kyool wrote on Twitter.
The lavishly shot "Lost" is the original Must-See HD drama. Yet for its final bow, ABC's marketing effort has shown no new footage, which producers wanted to keep under wraps. Until last week, all trailers used material from previous seasons, which the ABC marketing team tried to turn into an advantage.
"We wanted to go back and retell the stories of the characters and the larger situation that they're in," said Marla Provencio, co-executive vice president of marketing at ABC.
Catching up viewers on the complicated drama has always been a big part of the network's strategy with "Lost," but never more so than this year. After a serialized drama peaks, its ratings usually fall in a downward trajectory as infrequent viewers perceive themselves to be further and further behind the story. Ratings for the season premiere of "Lost" have fallen each year since Season Two. Reversing that trend is a major challenge, and ABC has aired repeats (complete with on-screen pop-up information) and has circulated various forms of recap videos online.
Though viewers tend to tune in for a show's last episode, the final season as a whole typically isn't as fortunate. Industry estimates have "Lost" tracking about the same as last year, which would be a victory if the show manages to maintain its previous rating. But - as with the online reaction to the video leaks - ABC is hopeful that "Lost" will surprise.
"'Lost' is like 'American Idol,' it's not your everyday show," Benson said. "From the buzz we're seeing right now, there's an obsession with this show. So who knows?"