What they got instead was almost 30 minutes of advertising, sponsor plugs, programme trailers and plot reminders. Viewers were so irritated at the frequency and duration of commercial breaks that many complained. Yesterday Channel 4 was lambasted by Ofcom, the media watchdog, for putting commercial breaks too close together in order to maximise advertising revenue.
Lost, a thriller about 48 survivors of an air crash who find themselves on a desert island, is still showing on Wednesday nights at 10pm. It was allocated a 65-minute slot by Channel 4, but Ofcom said that only around 36 minutes of each episode comprised new dramatic material. Channel 4 breached rules requiring a 20-minute gap between commercial breaks, instead running adverts after an interval of less than 11 minutes on one occasion and less than 13 minutes on another.
The channel had high hopes for Lost, which attracted more than 21 million viewers at its peak in the United States, and has spent £1m on marketing the show.
The cost of commercial airtime is a closely guarded secret, but the value of being associated with Lost is indicated by the "multi-million pound deal" that Channel 4 agreed with The Number 118 118, the direct inquiries business, to sponsor the show.
The majority of the 23 complaints concerned the number, frequency and placement of advertising breaks. In particular, viewers objected to the relatively short programme segments in between commercials. They also criticised the length of the breaks, the "overall disproportionate amount of advertising" and the show starting late and finishing early. The net programme length of Lost is around 41 minutes per episode. Each episode was billed to start at 10pm, but often began at 10.04pm, said Ofcom.
The programme included three advertising breaks of the maximum permitted length of three minutes and 50 seconds, before ending just before 11pm with a longer commercial break of between five and seven minutes. With sponsorship, promotions and repeated material added into the mix, Ofcom said it was "unsurprising that viewers had an impression of an excess of commercial material".
The watchdog said that although Channel 4 had not exceeded the upper limit of 12 minutes of advertising in any hour, it had failed to space the commercial breaks far enough apart "on a significant number of occasions ".
Channel 4 said: "In order to compete commercially with other terrestrial channels it was necessary to maximise the number of breaks in popular programmes and also to take the maximum amount of advertising".
Since the launch episode was watched by 6.1 million viewers, Lost's audience has dipped to 3.5 million. But adding viewers who watch it on the digital channel E4 or a repeat on Sundays, Channel 4 says the audience is closer to 6.5 million.