Lynette Rice
March 26, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The second coming of Lost. That’s what ABC thought it had in FlashForward. The creators bragged about having a five-year plan for the worldwide-blackout drama, their scripts were jam-packed with character-driven intrigue, and the show boasted the kind of cinematic panache that viewers hadn’t seen since, well, a band of castaways shot down a polar bear. Unfortunately, the serialized sci-fi mystery soon had three factors working against it. (1) The writers’ room imploded — the series is now on its third showrunner. (2) ABC tabled the program for an excruciating three-month hiatus. (3) Ratings, which had already dropped significantly before the series went on break in December, sank to a record low (6.5 million viewers) when the show returned on March 18. ABC tried to put a happy face on the situation by saying it was the 8 o’clock hour’s top non-sports program (it helped that Survivor was preempted, Bones was a repeat, and NBC’s comedies typically lag far behind). But the writing was on the wall: FlashForward was on its way to becoming the latest flop in a long line of supposed successors to the Lost throne.

Dollhouse. Jericho. Invasion. Surface. Day Break. They all sought to capture the mythological magic of Lost but — like Oceanic flight 815 — crashed and burned along the way. Though genre programs can be a boon for the brand — it sounds a lot hipper to say ABC is the home of Lost than to declare “it’s the network that brought you According to Jim” — it has become clear over the years that there is not a ton of upside to developing mind-bending sci-fi shows. Most don’t even make it past the first season (see sidebar) because the ratings aren’t there to justify the investment. ABC’s V is yet another ambitious entry that started strong (16.7 million watched the debut) before fading (the ratings for episode 4 were down to 11.1 million). The show returns on March 30 and needs to prove itself if it hopes to make it to season 2.

Even if a science-fiction show does hit it big in its first season, sustaining that momentum has been just as tricky. Over at Fox, the sci-fi drama Fringe managed to get a third-season renewal, though its ratings are down 25 percent from last year among adults 18–49 after moving from Mondays to Thursdays. And it seems unlikely that NBC will pick up a fifth season of Heroes, which averaged only 6.5 million viewers last fall — down 33 percent from the year before, and less than half of what some of its first-season episodes were bringing in. While the producers and networks behind these programs often point to the passion of the fans following them, that passion doesn’t translate into dollars. “The fans are rabid,” explains Jason Maltby, an ad buyer for the firm Mindshare. “They’ll watch the original, they’ll go online, they’ll do a lot of different things. Their involvement is much deeper than a casual viewer, but again, it’s hard to monetize that.”

And that’s key, because these shows can be ridiculously pricey to produce: At roughly $12 million, the 2004 pilot for Lost still stands as the most expensive ever, though the $10 million price tag for the Fringe pilot comes close. And the production companies that make these shows are often hard-pressed to recoup their losses. Heavily serialized shows are hard to sell into syndication because they don’t rerun well (procedurals like USA’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Fox’s Bones, in comparison, are hugely popular because they don’t require as much background story to watch).

It’s hardly surprising, then, that out of the 11 dramas ABC is developing for fall — which include a medical procedural starring Dana Delany, an anthology about a group of ex-high schoolers, and a dramedy about a single mom who runs a Beverly Hills drug cartel — only one comes remotely close to replicating the Lost formula. (That would be No Ordinary Family, a tall tale about a family of superheroes that stars Michael Chiklis.) “Nothing can replace Lost,” admits ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson. “We’re looking for something unique and innovative and exceptional, because that’s what grabs viewers and ignites their passion and makes them want more. That’s why Lost worked — no one had seen anything like it and it promised a lot. So we’re not focused on finding ‘the next Lost.’ We’re looking for the next great, groundbreaking, game-changing idea.”

Whatever ABC deems that to be, it’ll likely be something that doesn’t require a Ph.D. in physics to follow. It’s the same situation at CBS, NBC, and Fox, which are primarily focusing their energy on ensemble shows about cops and lawyers because they too have had trouble sustaining serialized shows. With Heroes on the ropes, NBC downgraded Day One — an apocalyptic pilot from Heroes scribe Jesse Alexander — to a two-hour movie that will probably get burned off this summer.

Fringe executive producer Jeff Pinkner thinks (or rather hopes) that the broadcast networks will work at finding a happy medium. “I personally think that these things are cyclical, the same way that no one would touch a pirate movie with a 10-foot pole until Pirates of the Caribbean came along,” he says. “Good storytelling is good storytelling. Something that I have learned is that having a limited audience, but an audience that cares deeply and passionately, is not necessarily a bad thing. What’s important is that the networks and the studios figure out a business model where they can keep shows like that on the air. A lot of the best human, emotional character storytelling comes within the context of these larger-than-life stories.”

Just don’t look for many of them on your TV screen this fall.

Errors to the Throne
Often imitated, never duplicated. Here are several network attempts to find ”the next Lost since the real Lost went on the air in 2004.

ABC, 2005-06 (22 episodes)

After a major hurricane, sea creatures infiltrate a small Florida town, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style.
What went wrong
The series (starring William Fichtner and Eddie Cibrian) started on a bad-luck note, premiering just after Hurricane Katrina, then suffered two long hiatuses that frustrated its dedicated — if shrinking — fan base.

NBC, 2005-06 (15 episodes)

Again with the sea creatures: This time, a strange aquatic species threatens the world while a marine biologist (Lake Bell) scrambles to unravel the mystery and the government tries to keep it a secret.
What went wrong
Besides the yawner of a premise and mysteries we had no interest in solving? Well, the sub-par CGI certainly didn’t help.

CBS, 2005 (9 episodes)

A ragtag team of experts (including Carla Gugino and Peter Dinklage) investigates when a UFO lands in the Atlantic — and eventually discovers that aliens are taking over humans’ bodies through their DNA.
What went wrong
In a year rife with other beings and, curiously, water-based happenings, Threshold just didn’t break through.

CBS, 2006-08 (29 episodes)

The residents (including Skeet Ulrich) of the titular Kansas town deal with the after-math of nuclear attacks in 23 major U.S. cities.
What went wrong
The complicated story lines didn’t make for a big enough hit on cop-show-driven CBS, though a viewer outcry after its cancellation was enough to buy the show a seven-episode second season for closure.

ABC, 2006 (6 episodes)

Thanks to a handy (and not so dandy) time loop, a detective (Taye Diggs) keeps reliving the same day — the day he’s framed for murder — over and over as he tries to find the real killer.
What went wrong
Repetitive much? Turns out that watching the same day over and over is actually pretty boring when Bill Murray isn’t involved.

NBC, 2006-present (78 episodes and counting)

Regular folks (played by the likes of Masi Oka and Hayden Panettiere) learn they have superhuman abilities.
What went wrong
Snoozy plotting and confounding characters proved to be kryptonite to the once-mighty ratings force, prompting a second-season slide that has yet to be reversed. On the bubble for a season 5 pickup.

Fox, 2008-present (35 episodes and counting)

Want your own Lost? Fox went straight to the source with this entry from Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams, centering on an FBI agent (Anna Torv), a wacky scientist (John Noble), and his genius son (Joshua Jackson) investigating unexplained phenomena.
What went wrong
A second-season move to Thursdays equaled a 20 percent dip in ratings.

Fox, 2009-10 (25 episodes)

Echo (Eliza Dushku) works for a shady company that hires out individuals — whose personalities and memories have been wiped away and reprogrammed — for a variety of missions.
What went wrong
Viewers never embraced the outlandish premise from Joss Whedon — or a heroine who didn’t have her own distinct identity.

ABC, 2009-present (12 episodes and counting)

Almost everyone on the planet (including Joseph Fiennes) blacks out simultaneously for 137 seconds, during which they appear to see themselves six months in the future.
What went wrong
Ratings have tumbled as an irresistible concept and a strong pilot gave way to sometimes meandering plotlines that were spread too thin among the sprawling cast.

ABC, 2009-present (4 episodes and counting)

The reboot of the seminal 1983 miniseries follows the arrival of a supposedly peaceful human-like alien species that is actually lizardy and sinister. Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell heads up the resistance.
What went wrong
The premiere scored 16.7 million fans, but the uneven follow-up episodes resulted in a loss of about a third of that viewership, making its return on March 30 a critical test.

You May Like