Last week, two iconic programs — Lost and 24 — came to an end. Perhaps their most notable feature was that they were prime time and addictive. That is, each required you to have invested in the program early on — more so Lost than 24 — something that had not really been the case since Twin Peaks and Babylon 5 a decade and a half earlier. This was highly unconventional from a commercial TV perspective because it meant that the series’ audiences would likely shrink rather than grow over time. Also, from a consumer perspective, it worked because there was some trust that the stories would be completed.
Recent attempts at a similar set of addictive stories including Journeyman, Dollhouse, Defying Gravity, The 4400, and Flash Forward have undermined the ability for addictive television to continue. These series have been canceled early on and without resolution. What that means for any new attempts is that, from a consumer perspective, it is not clear they are worth investing in. That means no initial audience upfront and a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom for the series.
This is a shame because advertising funding models were uniquely suited to addictive television. Pay per view models suffer from the fact that those broadcasting such programs have an incentive to price low initially and ramp up prices as people become addicted. That risk will itself stop those programs from succeeding. No similar risk from advertising existed as only the advertisers would be charged more as addiction set in.