NBC puts `Lost’ on fast track

Jul 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

NBC will speed up the debut of its reality series “Lost,” launching it during the first week of September. It will be given a cushy time slot, taking the place of a regularly scheduled scripted series for a six-week run.
Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s executive vice president of alternative series, specials, long-form programming and program strategy, won’t say exactly where “Lost” will land on the schedule until Thursday at the TCA press tour, but he said the show is starting remote production this week, and an on-air promo tease campaign has already begun airing during episodes of “Fear Factor,” “Spy TV” and “Weakest Link.” “Lost” was originally slated for late September.
“For us, it is more about continuing our momentum from the summer,” Mr. Gaspin said. “The really nice thing [about] having three hits this summer is having this strong sampling base to promote `Lost.’ It’s just a great environment to promote the show there, because these are the same viewers who will want to watch `Lost.”’
Several ad-buying sources said they see NBC’s earlier-than-expected entry of “Lost” as a pre-emptive strike against the planned fall launches of two other travel-adventure series, CBS’s “The Amazing Race” and The WB’s “Lost in the USA.”
“The Amazing Race” follows 11 teams of two contestants each as they race around the world, with the first team across the finish line winning $1 million.
The WB’s “Lost in the USA” features four teams, supplied with specially equipped RVs but no cash or credit cards, in a 48-hour challenge-filled race that could take them anywhere within the United States. Contestants can win up to $3 million in cash and prizes.
ABC’s planned manhunt series “The Runner,” created by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, will not debut on the network until Jan. 2, 2002. Buyers and network sources said they have yet to receive official premiere dates for “Amazing Race” and “Lost in the USA,” but their launch dates are presumed to be in mid- to late September.
“In almost any new genre or subgenre, the first new alternative concept out of the gates is seen by the audience as the original that sets the mold, and everything else after that is looked at as a knockoff clone,” said John Rash, chief broadcast negotiator for Minneapolis-based agency Campbell Mithun.
“All of the networks are chasing the same concept, and it is easier to get viewers with a perceived novelty than [with] something that looks like a Johnny-come-lately replication. Whether or not [“Lost”] is the best concept, speed is of the essence, and NBC certainly looks [as if] they’re looking to beat the others to the punch.”
Mr. Gaspin cited the previous two summers, when CBS introduced “Survivor” and “Big Brother” and ABC tested out “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” as “textbook cases” of how those networks used summer as a launch pad for alternative series and carried that momentum into the succeeding fall or winter seasons.
“If you go back to the summer runs of `Survivor’ and `Millionaire,’ they carried a lot of that [summer] viewership into the next season, and we’ll see the pattern replicating itself here,” Mr. Gaspin said.
Based on a British concept and developed by “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien’s new production company Conanco, “Lost” drops three teams of two contestants “in the middle of nowhere” with minimal money and food, a first-aid kit and passports. They must find their way back to a location near the Statue of Liberty in New York. No cash reward or other prizes are associated with the competition, unlike “Amazing Race” and “Lost in the USA.”
“There [are] no other contests or challenges within the show, because it is strictly about human perseverance and about the ingenuity and will of the contestants, [which] we hope will build viewer interest in the characters and show,” Mr. Gaspin said.
With shooting set to begin this week, Mr. Gaspin said the contestants will be blindfolded and air-dropped by helicopter to different locations around the world.
“It is kind of the reverse of `Where in the World is Matt Lauer?’ because he was the only one who knew where he was going. But these contestants and viewers will have no idea of where these people are dropped,” he said.
It was the “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” concept that NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker created when he was executive producer of NBC’s “Today Show.” “The concept for [“Lost”] immediately struck a strong chord with Jeff, who is someone-along with me-that likes to move to seize upon a development project and turn it around quickly for production,” Mr. Gaspin said. “You might call it guerrilla programming or scheduling, but Jeff and I just like to move fast on hot prospects.”
NBC, which was slow to jump into the reality game, has had its share of hot prospects to build on this summer.
“Weakest Link,” “Spy TV” and “Fear Factor” have held top-ranked ratings positions in adults 18 to 49 this summer. Moreover, NBC has won the past 12 weeks in prime time among that coveted demographic since the start of summer-giving it the longest winning streak of any broadcast network since the Peacock won 24 consecutive weeks during the 1997-98 season.
Mr. Gaspin said NBC’s sales team is already getting “strong interest” in sponsorship packages for “Lost,” some including in-show product placement, but he did not know whether ad deals had been finalized. An NBC spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of Marianne Gambelli, NBC’s vice president of Eastern sales, said the network is still pitching various levels of sponsorship packages, but she would not identify or confirm the major advertisers on board for the show. Tom Decabia, executive vice president of national broadcast for Advanswers PHD New York, and Mr. Rash said they had yet to receive presentations on “Lost,” but both found the idea of being in a “fanciful” race-adventure series more palatable than other critically panned “extreme” reality series such as “Fear Factor” and “Jackass.”
“There is definitely more of a comfort for advertisers dealing with these competition-based race and survival series, especially in light of that knife incident on [CBS’s] `Big Brother 2,”’ Mr. Decabia said.
He also suggested that some food and packaged-goods advertisers have a problem making buys in shows that “feature people entombed with live rats and snakes,” referring to NBC’s “Fear Factor.”
Despite the negative reviews for “Fear Factor” and “Spy TV,” Mr. Gaspin said the strong rating numbers indicate a growing appetite for extreme reality series.
For the summer period (May 24-July 9), “Weakest Link’s” 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. (ET) Monday run has registered a top-ranked 5.3 rating/15 share average in adults 18 to 49, marking 42 percent year-to-year improvement of the time period, according to comparable Nielsen Media Research national numbers.
“Fear Factor” has provided a strong 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. Monday springboard since making its debut June 11, posting a 5.2/17 average in the key demo and improving its time period by 63 percent compared with the year-ago summer period.
And since its June 21 start, “Spy TV’s” 5.4/18 in the 8:30 p.m.-to-9 p.m. Thursday slot has upped the time slot by
26 percent and is the first lead-out from “Friends”-albeit in repeats-in more than five years to improve 4 percent on its lead-in among adults 18 to 49.
The stronger young-adult circulation has translated to NBC posting eight of the top 10 shows in the adults 18 to 49 demo this summer. NBC has also emerged with a 16 percent gain this summer in the teens 12 to 17 demo (2.2/9)-second only to Fox’s 2.4/11 average (down 14 percent). During the summer-to-date period, NBC’s average-median-viewer age in prime time has dropped 2.2 percent to 42.6 years compared with 44.8 years for the same period last summer.