LOST: Behind The Numbers Of A TV Phenomenon
 

Event television is hard to come by these days. With so many of us either recording shows, watching them online or downloading them to our favorite Apple (NYSE:AAPL) product, getting a lot of people to watch something at the same time is becoming a rare feat.

Sunday night's finale of ABC's "Lost" was up to the task. Not a one of the show's millions of fans would've been caught dead not knowing what happened come Monday morning, and I'm sure a good portion of the disenfranchised, weary and just plain curious also came back to see the big reveal.

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Before the episode, the questions were everywhere: Will any of the Oceanic 815 survivors make it off the island? Is Jacob really the good guy? What is the purpose of the "source"? Whether you're satisfied with the explanations or not, there are three things of which we can be certain:

1) The 120th and 121st episodes on Sunday are the show's last.

2) Fans will continue to debate the show long after it's over.

3) "Lost" will keep contributing to ABC's - and parent company Disney's (NYSE:DIS) - bottom line for many, many years to come.

By the Numbers
Read on as we go inside the numbers of the confusing, captivating, curious conundrum that is "Lost" - and no, I don't mean 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.

  • September 22, 2004: The date the pilot aired on ABC. Over 18 million viewers tuned in, the best ratings effort by the network in nearly four years.

  • $10 million: The production cost of the pilot episode, making it one of the most expensive in history. The first season cost upwards of $50 million to produce, or over $2.2 million per episode. The show was such an expensive and risky proposition that it led to the firing of ABC studio head Lloyd Braun by Disney CEO Bob Iger before the pilot was even done filming.

  • 23.47 million: Viewers of the season two premiere, the highest ratings in the show's history to date. (Sunday night's ratings didn't even beat this number.)

  • 4.5-6 million: Drop-off in viewers during an interrupted season three, when viewers complained about a several month layoff in new episodes and an ever-confusing storyline. Ratings remained lower in seasons four and five amidst a writer's strike and the ongoing feeling that new mysteries were popping up before older ones were answered.

  • $20,000-$40,000: Initial per-episode salaries of the show's cast. Their rates were bumped up to $80,000 per episode in 2005, so the cast members lucky enough to not be killed "off the island" have been reaping the rewards. Matthew Fox was earning a cool $250,000 per episode by 2009, while Evangeline Lilly's paychecks were $150,000 per show.

  • #1: Ranking on the DVD sales chart the week Season 2 of "Lost" was released. To date, DVD sales have been in the hundreds of millions. "Lost" is also considered to be the most recorded show on television, and is consistently in the top three of iTunes TV show downloads.

  • 150: The low end of the number of "Lost" official tie-in products and merchandise for sale, including over 45 t-shirts, four full-body costumes, five bobble-head dolls, 11 piece of jewelry, six books, five video games, two sets of trading cards … and yes, even action figures.

  • $900,000: Cost of a 30-second ad spot in Sunday's finale, a 400% markup from the upfront rates negotiated before the season began.

  • 13.5 million: The number of viewers the series finale drew, which included two hours of pre-finale coverage.
The Verdict
In the eyes of a studio exec, any television series is a long-dollar proposition. Good ratings are always priority #1, but the real profitability of a TV show in today's age is determined by syndication fees, DVD sales and other product tie-ins.

In this respect, a show like Lost is superior to shows like "American Idol", which may get higher ratings during the broadcast season but don't pay off for the networks on the back end. Once you know who wins "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars", why bother watching it again? "Lost", on the other hand, has intricacy woven into every episode. Many fans were re-watching the entire series leading up to the finale, and you can bet that now that the show is over, ABC/Disney will sell millions of complete series DVD sets, which will run a couple hundred bucks a pop. The mythology of the show will likely spur further product tie-ins and spinoffs, all of which send more dollars trickling back to corporate headquarters. (For another take, check out how to Survive The Downturn By Turning Off The TV.)

The Bottom Line
The scripted television show is still an endangered species. Reality TV is cheaper to produce and almost always returns higher profit margins to the studios. This is why in recent years you've seen so much more of the latter. If "Lost" can go out with the same kind of bang it came in with, it'd be a big boost to the entire genre. Either way, the show will go down as one of the ultimate water cooler topics of all time. And for the next week, don't even try to talk to a "Lostie" about anything else. (For more, see Why Networks Love Reality TV.)

Get a rundown of the latest financial news in this week's Water Cooler Finance: Greece Attacks And Google Hacks.

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