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What TV News Can Learn from “Lost”

-first posted at RTDNA.org on May 25, 2010

Don’t fear TV news professionals, this will not be a long rant about the last episode of Lost, what the numbers “4 8 15 15 23 42” meant, or whether Ben Linus is really an on-the-beach news director (though he does seem to have the right personality for it).  But in the wake of the series finale, I did want to muse a bit over television success and what we can all learn from J.J. Abrams and his cohorts about how to make our medium shine.

As you probably can tell from that opening paragraph, I’ve been a fan of Lost for its entire six-year run.  Sure, it’s stumbled from time to time.  But in the end, its 120 episodes continued to engage us week after week, bringing us back for fear we’d miss something unforgettable.  I don’t know about you, but I want my newscasts to do the same for my viewers.  To that end, I’ve analyzed the success of Lost and have these elements that we all can use to make our newscasts just as enthralling.

First and foremost, Lost continued to surprise us.  The show meandered down a path that did lead, more or less, to its conclusion.  But oh, what a trip it was to get there.  No one watching the first episode could have predicted what was coming in the second, much less seasons later.  Part of what brought viewers back week after week was the unpredictability of the show.  It was magnetic.  Now think of your newscasts.  How predictable are they?  “Well,” you might say, “they change all the time, depending on the news.”  Do they?  Or is it the same litany of crimes, news conferences, and politicians, all processed and delivered the same way?  I’m not saying we should never cover any of subjects listed above, but should we cover them as much as we do?  I’ve been outspoken when it comes to finding resources to put toward more enterprise reporting in our newsrooms, and surely Lost tells us that viewers like to be surprised.

Beyond surprises, Lost had great characters.  I personally see Ben as perhaps the best TV villain of all time.  His particular role on the show doesn’t have a TV news counterpart, but many of the other characters do.  Looking back at the first episodes of the show, the characters instantly drew us in.  Sure, Jack, Sawyer, and Kate were designed to be the main characters and we were interested in them from the start.  But look at the others.  Hurley seemed to be there at first just for comic relief.  But there was much more.  “The Others” provided a whole new panoply of players just at a time when we thought we knew who were watching, and still we wanted more.  Our news stories are often built with the dullest of characters.  We use the same old PR hacks, politicians, and experts because they’re easy.  Lost could have been built around the same five or six main players.  But because it wasn’t, because we met juicy characters like Mikhail for only a handful of episodes, we had to have more.  Our stories need more Mikhails.  They need more unexpected people.  Call it diversity of sources if you wish, but we need to find a way to have our newscasts bring in new faces and voices.

Finally, Lost respected its audiences’ intelligence.  The show made you think, made you discuss, and made you wonder about what was going on.  Abrams loves his “mystery box” concept (if you’re not familiar with it, see his great speech to TED at http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/j_j_abrams_mystery_box.html).  The show didn’t always spell it all out for us, instead leaving some of it a mystery for us in the audience to ponder.  Perhaps that’s what I respected most about Lost and what Abrams, Lindelhof, and Cuse did.  They treated me the way they would want to be treated by a show—as a smart, thinking person.  Now, I’m not saying our newscasts should be mystery boxes of their own.  We’re obviously in the business of answering all of the questions. If a polar bear shows up in Times Square today, we’d better say why.  So we’re not to leave any mysteries untold.  But that doesn’t mean we have to treat our audience members like they’re less than us.  I know I’m personally guilty of focusing on the lowest elements of our audience and wondering why we bother with doing anything beyond their level.  But that’s exactly the approach that’s put news into the ratings position it’s in now.  Our striving to be all things to all people, along with our lowest common denominator approach to story selection, has driven away what our newscast used to have—smart, thinking people as viewers.  We can bring them back if we do stories that matter to them.  Important investigative, political, economic, or policy stories treat our audience members with respect and show them we value the time they’re giving us.  We owe them that.

So today, I don’t mourn the end of Lost, but instead celebrate what it was.  For all the reasons above and many more, I count watching it as among the best uses of my valuable time over the past six years.  And I’m planning to keep working as hard as I can to see that people see my newscasts the same way going forward.

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