Lost Shuns Sci-Fi Label

ABC is selling the hit as a relationship show about people caught up in extraordinary circumstances

ABC’s breakout hit, Lost, features a character cursed by numbers, polar bears on a tropical island, a group of supernatural-type people called “The Others” and some sort of monster. But the network’s marketing people still insist it isn’t a science-fiction show.

“Science fiction will not come into play from a marketing standpoint,” says ABC Senior VP of Marketing Mike Benson of the show’s second year. “We have never used those two words. While there certainly are sci-fi elements to it, it is important that we position the show in a way that is not too narrow.”

Lost may be credited with paving the way for new paranormal-related shows this fall, such as The WB’s Supernatural, CBS’ Threshold and ABC’s own Invasion, but the network’s marketing plan is to ensure that Lost’s sophomore season will avoid the science-fiction label at all costs. What ABC is selling is a relationship show about people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

“While there are things that may be construed as science fiction in the show, the things that we want to continue to perpetuate are the mystery and human aspects of the show—and there are some soapy elements, too,” Benson says.

Much of the show’s buzz can be attributed to the vagueness surrounding the reasons for the happenings on the island—an ambiguity ABC is happy to promote. But some fans were unhappy with the lack of information revealed in the season finale—a complaint also made about the once popular X-Files, which aired for nine years on Fox.

Sci-fi Elements

It is a delicate balance ABC must juggle, even as the show’s producers concede that, yes, the show has science-fiction elements and, yes, the fan base is really not dramatically different from that of Star Trek in all its permutations. (Trek’s rabid fans are known as Trekkies.)

The marketing and promotional strategy will be an extension of the launch campaign that was widely labeled as one of the most successful of last season. In addition to on-air and print, last year’s strategies—such as leaving ad messages in bottles on beaches and airing radio spots of stranded people breaking in with SOS calls—built water-cooler buzz for the show’s premiere.

ABC’s decision to continue to downplay the sci-fi element next season makes the show more palatable to a wider target audience on Madison Avenue. Says series co-executive producer Damon Lindelof, “I think the network and the studio have always understandably not wanted to brand it as a science fiction show, because that is a very narrow definition of what a show is.”

Web-Site Marketing

In the same spirit, ABC used the show’s season finale this year to launch a new campaign. Within the show was a shot of a poster for fictional Oceanic Air and a Web-site address, which fans of the show found. The network then sent out 5,000 postcards touting the Web address to a mailing list it had purchased of targeted 18- to 34-year-olds.

The live Web site (which ABC says has attracted more than 4 million hits) states that all flights are cancelled, but if users plug a series of numbers central to the show’s plot—4,8,15,16,23,42—into the “travelers” fields and press “find,” they are taken to a seating chart. If those row numbers are clicked on in order, users are taken to a trailer for season two and then to another official show Web site.

ABC also cut a licensing deal with Glendale, Calif.-based Creation Entertainment to use fan conventions, merchandising and a new fan club to leverage the show’s passionate following. The first Lost convention, which took place in June in Burbank, Calif., drew only about 500 people. But according to Creation co-owner Gary Berman, the per-head sales of merchandise matched that of Star Trek events, which Creation has been organizing for 15 years.

Another convention is being arranged for Northern California this year, with plans calling for five or six more around the country in 2006.

Berman says that, while the network may want to shy away from sci-fi in its positioning, that aspect is what drives his fanatical audience: “We were real happy there is a monster in the show. When they explain something, it is not as good for us.”

Plans are to begin selling memberships to the official Lost fan club near the end of August, pending studio approval. A six-month membership will run approximately $30 and will include a member kit with knickknacks such as an exclusive DVD featuring convention footage and possibly selected show footage.

“Our area of the company is not necessarily a profit center,” Benson says. “If there is some way to recoup some of our costs, then we will do that, but this is really about marketing for us and not [about] making money.”

ABC will continue to leverage these ancillary strategies to supplement its on-air push, which it will hold off on breaking until later in August. Says Benson, “I am a firm believer in letting things quiet down and then coming back.”

The network will target men and women with different spots but also advertise for a general audience. “We used to cut certain spots for a Monday Night Football or an NYPD Blue,” he says. “But we really kind of set out to simplify our creative strategy. We will do some gender-based targeting, but we just want to find a main message that will work for us on many levels.”

Games, Clothes and Books

ABC is also very actively involved in building the Lost franchise though the normal route of brand extensions, including the Sept. 6 launch of the first-season DVD through Buena Vista Home Entertainment. The network also plans an episode guide and two novels (from Disney’s Hyperion), a calendar (through Andrews’ McMeel), trading cards (with Cardinal), a new magazine (with Titan Publishing Group) and an apparel line, for which there is not yet a partner.

And, predictably, discussions for a videogame adaptation of the show are taking place with major players in the game-development world, including ABC’s own Buena Vista Games.