Lessons from LOST to ONCE UPON A TIME: Have Television Writers Been Given Too Much Creative License?

In the after-math of LOST, an interesting trend has begun to emerge in television viewing patterns:  viewers are now gun-shy of investing in serialized television.  Viewers are no longer willing to invest their time and energy into a show that may take them some place they do not want to go. 
For LOST not only dared to kill off its principal characters, it ultimately killed off 9 of its 13 principal characters: Boone, Shannon, Charlie, Jack, John Locke, Sayid, Jin, Sun, Michael – leaving Kate, Sawyer, Hurley and Claire ambiguously alive, and who were revealed to be dead in the final episode. It also killed off a majority of its supporting characters, including Daniel Faraday, Charlotte, Danielle Rousseau, Alex, Juliet, Libby, Ana-Lucia, and Eko. 
LOST became the “gold standard” in story-telling because it achieved the remarkable feat of luring in nearly 24 million viewers and ran 6 successful seasons, winning numerous awards along the way.  But, in the end, there was a significant amount of “viewer fatigue.”  Pulling in only 8 million viewers by its final episode, LOST is also a great example in how to disenfranchise an audience. 
LOST secured its initial amazing viewership numbers because it offered an array of fascinating characters, so much so that viewers could not wait to learn more about each of them.  The breadcrumbs LOST offered were eagerly snatched-up and analyzed and it become part the cultural zeitgeist and popculture. 
But it also became a television teaching-tool; it taught viewers that steadfast devotion is not necessarily rewarded in the end.  LOST broke too many hearts, upset its core fan-base and became a “shell” of its former self by the end.  The fact that it ended with the reveal that a large number of its characters were living in a version of purgatory awaiting their chance to “move on” as their fellow comrades joined them one-by-one in the after-life was thoroughly discouraging. 
LOST could have been a show that was about its characters over-coming significant hardship and obstacles to achieve a rescue, fixing a broken timeline or even finding their place in the world; instead it was a show that offered only despair, hopelessness and death.  Fans who tuned out early, were gleeful that they had not wasted their time on a show that took them on such a futile journey.  Fans that stuck with the show to the bitter-end, were divided on how to feel about it.  Some loved it; some hated it.  It was a 6-year journey that left a distasteful feeling behind.
In the television seasons that followed the end of LOST, several TV shows attempted to imitate its successful formula – each failing more spectacularly than the next.  Fingers were pointed at the pale imitations citing casting, pacing, directing and a whole host of other things that lead to their downfall.  But the one thing they all shared in common was huge initial ratings, followed by steep decline as viewership steadily eroded.  The shows were getting the LOST formula right, but viewers were not sticking around.  Why?  It was most likely because viewers saw that the shows were not heading in a direction they wanted to go.
While some may be quick to point out that shows like MAD MEN, JUSTIFIED and THE WALKING DEAD are all succeeding with serialized television shows, those shows pull in significantly lower numbers of viewers than most broadcast television shows.  A show that has the luxury of being off-network (AMC, FX, CW) can afford to pull in lower numbers of viewers.  They are not competing for mass viewership, only the number of viewers to make them economically viable on their network.  Shows competing on ABC, CBS, NBC or FOX must pull in much higher numbers of viewers to be viable.  Currently FOX’s TERRA NOVA, which pulls in an average of 7 million viewers, is considered “on the bubble” because that number of viewers for a regular broadcast network is considered low.  Similarly, ABC’s PAN AM is only attracting 4.6 million viewers is considered “unofficially canceled.”  (In contrast, MAD MEN pulled in 2.9 million viewers last season, JUSTIFIED pulled in 3.9 million viewers, and THE WALKING DEAD averages 6 million viewers.) But for broadcast networks, viewership under 6 million is a death-knell. 
So when you look at the viewership erosion of this season’s critically-lauded and fan-favorite ONCE UPON A TIME, a startling trend emerges.  With only seven episodes having aired to date, ratings dropped from 12.8 million viewers to 8.9 million in less than 2 months.  It has been a steady progression as shown:
Episode 1 – 12.8 million (“Pilot”)
Episode 2 – 11.6 million (“The Thing You Love The Most”)
Episode 3 – 11.3 million (“Snow Falls”)
Episode 4 – 11.3 million (“The Price of Gold”)
Episode 5 – 10.66 million (“That Still Small Voice”)
Episode 6 – 9.6 million (“The Shepherd”)
Episode 7 – 8.9 million (“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”)
The loss of 4 million viewers is significant.  For any show, that kind of loss leads one to wonder: what is going on?  Viewers are not simply disappearing; they are running away as fast as they can.  As I discussed in my article “ONCE UPON A TIME Redux: Why Do TV Shows Have To Break Our Hearts?”, viewers tune-out when they are unhappy or disillusioned.  ONCE UPON A TIME promised the return of “happy endings” – yet dared to kill off a beloved character within its first 7 episodes.  Not even LOST was so audacious; it dared not kill Boone until episode 20 in its first season.
Two recent serialized TV shows that attempted to follow in LOST’s footsteps were FLASHFORWARD and THE EVENT.  FLASHFORWARD debuted to 12.5 million viewers, falling to 8.5 million by episode 7 (a loss of 4 million viewers), and finally ended its first season with only 4.9 million viewers.  The following year THE EVENT debuted to 10.8 million viewers, dropping to 5.4 million viewers by its 7th episode (a loss of 5.4 million viewers), and ended its first season with only 4.9 million viewers — and both FLASHFORWARD and THE EVENT were canceled after their first seasons. As any television programmer or advertiser will tell you, the numbers do not lie.  With those kinds of viewership drops, a television show is simply not economically viable. 
So the noticeable decline of ratings for ONCE UPON A TIME is something to be worried about.  It is very hard for a TV show to reverse a downwards spiral in ratings.  Most executives and showrunners are looking for a plateau point – when ratings level off.  That gives them an idea of what their true audience base is and whether the show stands a chance of making it.
The fact that ONCE UPON A TIME has been created by former LOST writers and promoted as being a LOST-like type of show leads one to wonder if it will make the same mistakes that LOST did.  LOST had the gall to kill off its principal characters and, if ONCE UPON A TIME’s most recent episode is any indication, it is following the same formula. 
Which leads me back to my question: are television writers being given too much creative license?  When a network greenlights a TV show, they are investing nearly $50 million in a show.  A pilot can cost up to $10 million to make, and each subsequent episode runs about $2 million, not including advertising.  That $50 million investment for a show’s first season is something to be protective of.  Thus network executives assess and analyze very carefully whether their investment is garnering the anticipated return.  Television is about profits, after all.  So while the pedigree behind ONCE UPON A TIME is stellar, the creative license invoked is testing whether or not the product is truly viable. 
Was it smart for ONCE UPON A TIME to kill off a principal character in episode 7?  Particularly since fans were already showing signs of restlessness and dissatisfaction with the direction the show was heading.  The show had promised that Emma Swan’s return would break the curse and return the “happy endings.”  Yet within 6 episodes, viewers had quickly figured out that “happy endings” were not being delivered and they were tuning out; and by episode 7, a beloved character had been killed off.   With ONCE UPON A TIME off the air for three weeks, it begs the question of whether fans will want to come back now that they know that the writers are willing to break their hearts.  After all, who wants a repeat of LOST?  No one wants to stick around if all the characters they fall in love with are killed without regard as to whether the viewers have invested in them and all the stories that they had hoped could be told.
Every writer is quick to state that they need “creative license” to bring their vision to life.  But television is a business.  It is all about seducing viewers and convincing them to tune-in and watch a particular TV show each week.  Driving viewers away is only guaranteeing that a show will be canceled and no stories told at all. 
It is time for writers and showrunners to recognize that they must work within the confines of the established world of television – television audiences are looking for something that they feel like being a part of each week.  Shows like NCIS, NCIS: LOS ANGELES, THE MENTALIST and MODERN FAMILY have figured it out.  Viewers want a surrogate family to visit each week.  They want to invest in the characters’ lives and share the journey they go on.  Killing characters only reminds viewers that the writers have little value or concern in what the audience wants.  No one wants their “surrogate family” torn apart or their newfound “friends” killed off.  Killing characters rarely wins new viewers and frequently upsets established viewers who will seek out other TV shows to call “home.”
Too much creative license can back-fire spectacularly.  A writer may think that a character death is the answer to creating conflict and a storyline.  But beware fickle viewers who do not see things the same way.  Killing our “friends” only pisses us off – and if you are advertising your show, which promises to bring back “happy endings,” then you had better deliver.  LOST is best remembered for not answering viewers’ questions and killing off its core characters, and no one wants to revisit that sad ending.  Let’s take “creative license” and use it more constructively – and to all those executives out there crunching the numbers, pay closer attention to the damage being done by writers/showrunners who are sabotaging their own shows with the liberal use of “creative license.”  No one really cares about creativity – we just want a show that we all will tune in and watch — and sometimes “happy endings” are just what we are looking for.

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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  • I think this is more of a case that people might not be watching serialized shows as much live (which most of the ratings numbers still represent, although not accurate). In the age of Netflix, we’ve learned to wait until we can watch all episodes in one fell swoop.

  • No. I liked Lost. Obviously I am ok with characters dying. LOL. I just don’t care for how Joss does it. To the point I won’t bother watching his shows anymore. Emotionally he lost me. 

  • Observations

    I agree with most of the article, but network shows have several extra difficulties compare to cable:
    They have to have a large audience, as they need to have advertisers, extra pressure and promotion in a certain way.
    Not only the producer interferes with the production, also the network. I know of Fringe that it has to pass Bad Robot, Warner Brothers and Fox, and that Fox has made them change storylines because of what they think the audience wants to see.
    Most network viewers seem to want the same story repeated and are not in for change.
    It is a huge advantage to work on a cable show, only 10-12 episodes , probably completely written when filming starts and less pressure, because as you say 3 million is a winner for them.
    Fringe could only wish they were at HBO or AMC.

  • Jeff

    I didn’t say they were the entire time. I said they were in season six. It was a copout that they ended up using Purgatory (and yes..that’s in essence what they were in by the end of the series!) when that was a rumor they fought from day one. Ok, fine – they weren’t in “limbo” when they were on the island, but WHY would they eventually GO THERE when they had been denying that the show was about that since day one?? Despite whether or not they were in Purgatory or not, having them all wake up, meet up and go off into the light was a let down of epic proportions. Made the entire series worthless in my eyes.

  • Stonestreet

    I somewhat agree. Although I adored Lost. I never got upset by the deaths. That show was about the journey and it NEVER made promises. After all the show’s name was lost… they were lost… it was supposed to be murky. If audience members wanted something else.. that was on them. The big concern I think everyone got was that the writers obviously didn’t have a master plan… as they claimed they did. Although for me.. I give them credit for creating a good story anyway.

    Once Upon a time, on the other hand, is losing viewers because it has lied to the audience on all levels. They are changing fairy tales to suit their needs, suddenly Cinderella doesn’t have a fairy godmother…they have lost focus on their own main character, Emma Swan and killed a very popular character — the Sheriff. For no apparent reason. A story about fairy tales that started with Prince Charming saving Snow White, has most recently ended with a cold blooded murder, suggested man rape, and snow white having a one night stand while Prince Charming sleeps with someone he doesn’t care about.

    The audience isn’t stupid. These writers didn’t ever have a good plan and are now throwing things in as if they are on purpose but really are a big old depressing mess showing the audience they are not going for any sort of good story, but rather a “series” that will provide them all with a paycheck.

    Wake me up with you decide to break the curse. Maybe I will watch that episode. I would say the same for Flashforward. The pilot had promise but it soon became clear the writers had NO clue what to do with any of it.

    My suggestion to the networks. Mini Series!! High concept shows with an end date. I bet people would tune in then sure they would get a solid story and not just filler.

  • Alfie

    I bailed out on LOST after the second season. It was like reading a mystery book with the last chapter ripped out.

    Now that I know that Once Upon a Time is being written by the same people I will give it a pass.

  • KevS

    The problem with ONCE UPON A TIME is not the killing off of a “beloved” character. Graham the Huntsman was nice to look at, but hardly around enough for viewers to invest in.

    That is, in fact, the problem. None of the characters are particularly interesting. Partly, that’s a fairy tale problem, where women are either evil or clueless innocents. The writers are overcompensating by making Emma too heroic. Also, not much humor. The show desperately needs a Hurley to occasionally say, “Dude, really?” Emma would be a natural, since she is from Real World, but she is too busy being sad about being a foundling and rappelling down mine shafts. 

    The second problem is the one that plagues all shows based on a mystery. If the writers don’t deliver some answers, eventually, the show collapses under the weight of its loose ends. It happened with X-FILES and LOST. It will happen to ONCE UPON A TIME if the writers don’t figure out how to deliver a little payoff now and then. The irony is that the more successful such a show is, the more likely it will peter out disappointingly.

    I was actually intrigued by the last episode before the break. Who knew Queen Mayor still had her magic powers? It seems to me that she could be running a tighter ship. Why hasn’t she turned little Henry into a lawn ornament and placed an order with Mr. Gold for a less troublesome child?  Many questions. I will tune in again. For now.

  • well written…