Battle of the TV titans

As Hicks takes crown on `American Idol,' viewers are torn between it and competing finale of `Lost'

May 25, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER AND DAVID ZURAWIK | ABIGAIL TUCKER AND DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN REPORTERS

As the victorious Taylor Hicks warbled his new single on the American Idol finale last night, Fells Point resident Jamie Sienko and her girlfriends were watching in style. The 27-year- old teacher had persuaded her boyfriend to let them use his home movie theater with the stadium-style seats; they had an enviable view of the surprise Prince appearance, Kellie Pickler eating escargot in an ill-advised comedy bit and runner-up Katharine McPhee bravely smiling.

But two lucky invitees to the party sent their regrets, and not because they were too busy for television.

"They said, `Oh, no, we're watching Lost,'" Sienko said.

She even offered to TiVo the finale of the mystery-drama, whose time slot overlapped with the reality hit's results show. "There was just no persuading them," she said.

Last night, lines were drawn in the sand - or, more likely, the shag carpets - of living rooms across the country, as fans sided with one two-hour finale over the other. Those obsessed with Lost struggled for the remote with their Idolizing roommates and spouses, who outnumber them by the millions.

It was the climax in the clash of two intensely loyal, and very different, viewing cultures that has been building all year: the hollow-eyed, conspiracy-minded Lost devotees versus the top-40-friendly fans of Idol.

It's safe to say that Lost lost. Though the official Nielsen ratings won't be available until later today, ABC's cliffhanger - which debuted in 2004 - has been getting clobbered all season by the fifth incarnation of Fox's singing spectacular.

American Idol's weekly Wednesday night audience of 29.3 million viewers is more than double that of Lost (14.6 million).

Yet both shows have won over the 18-to-49 group, the age bracket that inspires advertisers to pay top dollar. Lost is a huge hit by any standard - except Idol's.

"Idol is very top of mind - you almost can't avoid it," said Jillian Mastromatteo, broadcast media buyer for Eisner Communications, one of the largest independent buyers of television time on the East Coast.

"Kids watch it, and they can watch it with their parents and grandparents, whereas you are not getting that with Lost."

Both shows allow the audience to participate - a key for young viewers - but in different ways, Mastromatteo said.

"On Idol, you can watch and vote, and you feel like you're part of the show and you're making a contribution to what happens to the contestants," she said. "But in Lost, it's a mental thing. You're involved with the characters; you're trying to figure out what's happening next."

For Lost fanatics, the worst news is that Idol is still on the rise, with its highest ratings ever. The future, analysts say, belongs to the reality show.

"As great a show as Lost is, it is already on borrowed time; it's a miniseries that managed to stretch into two seasons," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"American Idol is a powerhouse that could run 10 or 20 years if they play their cards right."

Lovers of Lost fret that Idol will continue to erode their show's ratings if the shows are pitted against each other again next year.

"Lost is an expensive show to produce," said Caren Chancey, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student and avid fan who says that griping about the Idol threat often surfaces on Web sites devoted to the series. "The ratings benchmarks that it needs to produce are higher than a lot of other shows."

To Lost fans such as Chancey, turning on the TV last night was not just an effort to learn more about the show's epic riddles, such as "the numbers" and "the Others"; it was a gesture of support, almost like - if one dare make the comparison - casting a vote for an Idol underdog.

Though the programs shared an hour of prime time last night - the Idol results show ran from 8 to 10 p.m. and Lost from 9 to 11 p.m. - they have little else in common in terms of content or the viewing culture they create. The singing contest is a form of reality TV; Lost is a science fiction saga about a plane wreck on a remote, monster-ridden desert island.

Suspense is neatly resolved on American Idol each week with the elimination round; on Lost, mysteries linger for whole seasons. Between episodes, Idol lovers can follow their favorites in celebrity magazines, while Lost characters pop up only once in a while, leading fans to theorize on their own at Web sites, including dharmasecrets.com and thefuselage.com.

Also, Idol is a live show that is hashed over the next morning and forgotten, whereas Lost followers tend to replay episodes over and over on televisions and computers, in search of revelatory clues.

It's an interesting match-up, said Richard Dubin, a professor of television at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.

"They are counter-programs," he said. "American Idol appeals to our mammalian core brain, the brain we had before we had any cerebral cortex." Lost, in contrast, is "cerebral and reflective," he said.

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