Of Webisodes and Writer’s Guilds: ABC’s “Lost” and the 2007 Writers’ Strike

I grew up in a family of Lost fans. While the series was airing on ABC from 2004-2010, I distinctly remember witnessing my parents, my older brother, and even my aunts and uncles excitedly discussing theories and episode recaps with one another. While I didn’t watch the show until years after that contentious finale was broadcast, I still participated in the viewing experience in one key way: I watched (and rewatched and rewatched) one of the ABC-produced webisode series that corresponded to the show, the aptly-named “Lost: Untangled”. Little did I know at the time, however, that a major battle had just been waged that concerned the existence of web series just like this one.

Lost: Untangled” reenacted the key scenes of each episode with action figures, hand puppets, and weird voices. Basically, any kid’s dream show.

As Cynthia Littleton summarizes in her book TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet, the growing prominence of new media distribution platforms—and the subsequent lack of residuals generated for creatives therein—was one of the central issues that prompted the 2007 Writers Strike. Members of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) depend on residuals as a source of stable income in an otherwise unstable working environment; since most industry careers operate on a freelance basis, these ongoing payments offer a vital system of support for writers who may otherwise spend months or even years between jobs. However, while digital distribution for film and television series was popularized as early as 2005, a specific residual compensation formula for new media programming was painfully absent from writers’ contracts, otherwise known as Minimum Basic Agreements (MBAs). As a result, earning compensation for web-based content became “a [prominent] rallying cry for WGA leaders in the buildup to and during the strike.” (Littleton 6)

In more show-specific terms, Lost has a close relationship with this new media conflict and with the writers’ strike in general. For one, Lost was one of the first television programs to be made available for online downloading and ad-supported web streaming. This advancement came on the heels of the Walt Disney Company’s groundbreaking licensing agreement with iTunes in 2005, and ABC’s launch of its digital-streaming arm via ABC.com in early 2006 (Littleton 6). According to Littleton, the response from viewers regarding these new avenues for content consumption was “overwhelming”, and thus indicated a shift in consumer habits that would come to rock the industry in the following years.

Missing_PiecesAnother major element of Lost’s role in the writers’ strike concerns the made-for-digital content that was produced surrounding the show. As it turns out, “Lost: Untangled” was predated by another web series entitled “Lost: Missing Pieces”, a set of 13 “mobisodes” that served to extend the narrative gap between the televised episodes of the show. The “Missing Pieces” mobisodes were released weekly via Verizon’s mobile phone network and were later made available on ABC.com and iTunes. In addition, and even more importantly, the work done for this web series was covered by an agreement between the major Hollywood guilds and Disney’s Touchstone Television production unit. In a rare moment of cooperation, these Lost web shorts represented, overall, a victory for new media compensation that would come to bolster the WGA in the days leading up to the writer’s strike. (Littleton 54-55)

During the strike itself, showrunner Carlton Cuse played a crucial role in the WGA’s protests. Interestingly enough, his presence at strike rallies and pickets has been preserved digitally, in another series of online videos from the “United Hollywood” faction of WGA creators. Cuse was also a key member of the WGA’s negotiations committee along with other notable showrunners and screenwriters, and thus took direct action in settling the terms of the strike, broadly, in the writers’ favor (Littleton 85).

The strike, in turn, had some noticeable effects on Lost. Season four was noticeably shortened since only eight episodes were completed before the strike began; the season was ultimately extended to 13 episodes once the strike ended, but the damage had already been done in the eyes of the series’ most ardent fans, who approached the cutback with great concern.

In any case, Lost’s associations with the causes and effects of the writers’ strike are far from unnoticeable. It’s especially important to consider the show’s strong online presence at such a pivotal moment for the industry, when the studios were loath to recognize the far-reaching impact that digital technologies would have on film and television distribution for years to come. I mean, even I watched most of Lost’s original web content, and I wasn’t even watching the show at the time! Overall, for a show that was such a cultural staple at the peak of its popularity, it’s only fitting that Lost also came to capture some of the key rallying points involved in one of the most intense conflicts in entertainment history to date.


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