Monday, June 19, 2006


'Lost' in the Web
ABC tries an online ''Experience'' to sate fans of its hit show till fall by Jeff Jensen

On the night that the ABC Cast Away–meets–The Twilight Zone prime-time hit Lost concluded its second season, something strangely unfunny occurred on the late-night gabber Jimmy Kimmel Live. After his usual monologue, the comedian interviewed Hugh McIntyre, who was identified as a spokesman for the Hanso Foundation — which, as many Losties know, is the shadowy financier of the Dharma Initiative, a weird science project that once unfolded (and is possibly now unfolding) on the show's mysterious island. With a straight face, McIntyre accused Lost of misrepresenting the supposedly real foundation. With an equally straight face, Kimmel asked the flack about a hacker named Persephone who has been waging war with the foundation. When the bit finally ended, no one laughed, the audience undoubtedly feeling a little...lost.

Ah. You're getting it. Welcome to The Lost Experience, an innovative mix of interactive media, serialized storytelling, and old-fashioned marketing designed to keep Lost fans obsessively busy as they impatiently wait for season 3 to begin this fall.

Produced in partnership with Lost's TV carriers in the U.K. and Australia, the Experience was conceived by ABC's marketing department and the show's producers as a three-act story steeped in official show mythology but involving new or peripheral characters. ''You don't have to know all of Lost to pick it up,'' insists ABC's senior VP of marketing Mike Benson. ''But at the same time, it will answer questions for fans that reach back to the beginnings of Lost and even give you information leading up to season 3.''

Of course, this being Lost, things have to be complicated, so the Experience is structured as an epic Internet Easter-egg hunt: Participants must rummage through multiple websites to uncover elements of the story, then piece all of the clues together. The Experience also incorporates PR stunts (like the Kimmel bit), TV and print advertising, and the Lost tie-in novel Bad Twin, whose fictional author, Gary Troup, died on the plane crash that brought Lost's characters to the island. (Check out the video interviews with Troup housed at and other online booksellers for possible clues.) The extravagant enterprise is partially underwritten by corporate sponsors (which rankles some fans), but the commercial tie-ins have been intriguingly woven into the story. Locate the classified material at, and you'll find documents showing that Jeep was once involved in the Dharma Initiative. Yep, it's a reality-blurring head-scratcher — just like the show.

But it's no time-killing diversion. The Lost Experience is an ambitious experiment in using the Web to maintain fan support for TV shows as broadcast networks struggle to combat constant audience erosion. It also represents an official response to the series' unique cult, especially its rich and rabid online contingent. Throughout the first season, executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse saw fans engaging with the show as if it were a massive multiplayer online game — watercooler theorizing and spoiler hunting as interactive play. ''The traditional notion of TV is that it is contained in a box,'' says Cuse. ''Now, with the multiplicity of tech options, we asked the fundamental question: Why does Lost only have to exist inside that box?''

More epiphanies started popping last year as Lindelof and Cuse were fleshing out Lost's mythological backstory, including the history of the Hanso Foundation and its elusive founder, Alvar Hanso (who's been seen only fleetingly on the show, in a two-second shot during a grainy industrial video). The producers knew they were coming up with more details than they needed. They also knew that fans would love to know what those unnecessary details were, anyway. A eureka moment came in May 2005, when they met with Hyperion to discuss Bad Twin, which they decided to embed with references to Hanso and minor characters like stewardess Cindy (Kimberley Joseph). Says Lindelof: ''That was when we realized we could use ancillary media to tell these elaborate backstories that we can't really tell on the mothership.''

The producers' interest in using unconventional means to expand the scope of Lost dovetailed with ABC's desire to cultivate the show's prickly fanbase through creative, organic means. Laying the groundwork for the Experience were two websites — and a minimalist version of the Hanso Foundation website — that quickly became must-visits for devotees. The Experience officially launched May 2 with a richly revamped Hanso site, now haunted by the subliminal presence Persephone. Other sites followed, including and the Sprite-linked (ABC declined to comment on traffic to the sites.)

Implicit in the Experience is the expectation that Losties will share secrets with each other. (ABC's is the official clue-tracking hub.) But fans may also be pawning off fake clues as official clues, too. We say may, because ABC and the producers aren't commenting on content. However, Benson says he is looking at ways to make the Experience more accessible to casual fans; he hints that more public appearances by Hugh McIntyre and maybe even Alvar Hanso himself could be in the offing. Lest fans become too baffled, ABC is considering using traditional media later this summer to recap the essential plot points.

In the meantime, Benson is trying to keep his mouth shut. He also intends to check out those alleged Experience clues housed over at, including several new Dharma Initiative orientation films that look just like the ones seen on the show. ''Some of this stuff actually looks real,'' he says. Wait — was that a clue?! (Posted:06/15/06)

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