When I wrote my print TIME feature on the end of Lost, one section I had to drop for space had to do with how much money ABC was asking for ads in the finale—reportedly $900,000 a pop—even though Lost was not close to the highest-rated program on TV. That fact points to something that has potential to shape the business, and thus the creative output, of TV: it’s becoming more possible (not just through ads) to monetize a smaller, but intensely interested, audience.
I have no idea if Lost finale advertisers got their money’s worth, but Nielsen has an interesting post up that suggests the Lost audience was engaged with ads in a way that mattered beyond the finale’s relatively small (by hyped-up finale standards) ratings.
Only 13.6 million people watched the finale—enough to win the night, but not a patch on the end of M*A*S*H or Seinfeld, or an average American Idol. According to Nielsen, 90% of the ads aired in it achieved a higher degree of recall than from their airings in other programs. And even regular-season Lost ads performed better for advertisers than comparable airings elsewhere in primetime.
I don’t know that this is itself going to be a finding that affects the ability of cult shows to stay on the air. But it’s a piece of a much broader phenomenon, which is that absolute number of viewers is no longer the clearest gauge of a show’s business success (which ultimately is what gets and keeps shows on the air). There’s demographics, audience income, DVD sales, DVR replay, foreign markets and, in this case, ad effectiveness, which indicates that there may be a positive business reason to keep certain shows with intense followings. Whereas the old business model of TV was to air whatever would entertain the most people merely enough to keep them from changing the channel, there are more ways to take advantage of a show that can keep people riveted in place.
Another key finding: looks like people liked that Target Smoke Monster ad.