"Lost" Season Finale Caps Broadcast's Strangest Year

The strangeness surrounding the strike-compromised 2007-08 broadcast season just won't stop - even at this late date. Case in point: The season-finale of Lost, a three-hour extravaganza that qualifies as one of the television events of the year, will be telecast on ABC tonight -- eight days after the end of the "traditional" broadcast season.

As they do every year at this time, questions about Lost abound. Will Locke "move" the island? Why are members of the Oceanic 6 lying about their island experiences? What will happen to the rest of the survivors? How does Ben get off the island? (He isn't one of the Oceanic 6, but we know from flash forwards that he returns home seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter.) What's up with Jack's "dead" dad and his half sister, Claire? What happened to the other island, where the Others are based? Those are some of the new questions. Many old ones remain, such as: What is the smoke monster? and the ever-popular, What the heck is going on here?

Technically, the "traditional" broadcast season ended on Wednesday, May 21 - a great night for television, by the way, thanks to the two-hour season finale of American Idol. (The still formidable Idol proved that even after an iffy season it could rally and produce one of those outsized events that only a broadcast network can deliver.) But big-ticket original programming continued the following night, as ABC's Grey's Anatomy ended its season with an extended event of its own that proved to be as entertaining as any two hours of scripted broadcast television had been all season. For me, Grey's had lost creative focus many months ago, its characters suddenly so irritating and immature that they were painful to listen to, though still nice to look at. Last week's show won me back in a big way.

Like Idol's resurgence the night before, Grey's creative comeback was thrilling to experience. Unlike Idol, though, its grand season finale was scheduled outside the "traditional" 2007-08 broadcast season, not to mention the all-important May sweeps period. Indeed, the Grey's finale started a mere 22 hours after the season ended. To quote Maxwell Smart, a beloved television character of yesteryear who may re-enter the zeitgeist if the upcoming feature film remake of Get Smart starring Steve Carrel is a hit, Grey's "missed it by that much."

Which brings me back to tonight's two-hour season finale of Lost (part of a three hour event, if you count the repeat of the May 15 episode that will run just before the finale at 8 p.m. ET). In "traditional" TV terms, this much-anticipated wrap of Lost's fourth season has been banished to the broadcast equivalent of Siberia, a victim, like Grey's (and Ugly Betty, which also had its season finale last Thursday), of the scheduling havoc wreaked by the WGA strike. Is this any way to treat a series that has undergone a spectacular creative rebirth this year and proved to be a lifeline for fans of quality scripted television a few months ago when network lineups had been largely ravaged by strike-interruptus? (Eight fresh episodes of Lost ran in February and March.)

Once upon a time I might have answered, "You bet it ain't." But these days, what does it matter? Yes, the ratings for Lost's much-hyped season-ender won't help ABC's in-season or in-sweep performance, and yes, those same ratings might be suppressed by a possible loss of viewer momentum during the last two weeks. But given the way people now consume television, it isn't as if fans of the show aren't going to see it sooner or later, via DVR, DVD, download or streaming video. The availability of the Lost season finale (like that of Grey's) merely begins with its network debut, which plays to ABC's signature message, Start Here.

Perhaps we can look at this unusual scheduling of the Lost season finale not as a delayed ending to the "traditional" broadcast season but as the start of ABC's summer. All of the broadcasters have scheduled an unprecedented amount of original programming over the next three months, some of it scripted fare (CBS' Swingtown, NBC's Fear Itself), most of it unscripted. They know they can no longer afford to treat summer as unimportant and allow cable to steal the spotlight between Memorial Day and Labor Day (as it did last year with a number of high quality scripted series and many irresistible reality shows). That's why Fox loaded the season finale of American Idol with dancers from its summer series So You Think You Can Dance, which debuted the following night. Surely, tonight's presentation of Lost will be an excellent promotional platform for the many ABC series slated to premiere in the weeks ahead.

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