By Megan Barnett
July 26, 2010

How the Apple CEO may have changed the course of the hit ABC show with one comment back in 2005.

by Patricia Sellers, editor-at-large

Steve Jobs, as we know, has dramatically changed computers, movies, music, mobile phones, and more. Turns out, the Smartest CEO in Tech — as Fortune calls the Apple (AAPL) boss in the current issue — also influenced one of the past decade’s most innovative TV shows: Lost.

“He may not even realize it,” Anne Sweeney, who oversees ABC and Disney’s (DIS) cable TV networks, told me after she appeared, with Lost‘s creators, at Fortune Brainstorm Tech. In the on-stage interview, Sweeney explained that she first met Jobs in 2005, when they plotted the deal to distribute ABC shows via iTunes on Apple’s new video iPod. It was then that he planted the seed of a different way of thinking at Disney: “You talk about yourself as a content company,” he told Sweeney and other execs. “You’re really a media and technology company.”

Jobs, just a few months later, secured a foothold at Disney by selling Pixar, his film studio, to the media giant and becoming Disney’s largest shareholder as well as a director. As he kept urging CEO Bob Iger to embrace the digital opportunities, Lost evolved into a multi-platform model for the modern age.

Of course, clever story-telling, traditionally the basis of every TV hit, was vital to the show about people stranded on a strange and scary island. Unending mysteries and brain-twisting plots got fans chatting on Facebook and Twitter, building viewership the most efficient way of all — by word of mouth.

Damon Lindelof, Lost‘s co-creator and executive producer, told the Fortune audience that fans asked two questions about the plot, more than any other: Do you guys have a plan? And, Do you guys listen to the fans? Hardcore Lost enthusiasts wanted both answers to be “absolutely,” Lindelof said, “but the two things are in direct opposition to each other. So we realized we have to make ourselves accessible to the fans. What they really wanted was for us to listen to them complain.”

So Disney and Lost‘s producers created webisodes and mobisodes and podcasts to keep up the dialogue between shows. Eventually, Disney put full episodes on Hulu, whose users skew much younger than TV viewers and more male than’s. The Lost producers also used cutting-edge digital “green screens” to set scenes in Korea, snowy Russia, and on Iraqi oil fields without leaving Oahu, where Lost was shot. Ironically, fans complained that the one scene they filmed on location, in London along the Thames River to accommodate an actor’s schedule, looked fake.

In May, when Lost ended its six-year run, the show ranked No. 1 in Internet viewing, according to Nielsen. The program aired in 59 countries 24 to 48 hours after the original U.S. telecast, dubbed in many native languages — impossible to do until recent digital advances.

“I think we’re in a golden age of creativity,” Sweeney said, citing Lost as evidence that the outlook for profit-starved broadcast TV isn’t so gloomy. Asked whether CEO Iger, who is rumored to be interested in selling ABC, is committed to the TV business, she said, “He is committed. Disney is committed. We are committed to staying in the television business.”

Given that Disney owns cable-TV assets worth multiple billions, that’s an answer ripe for deciphering and debate — in the cryptic spirit of Lost.

(Photo by Nathan W. Armes/Creative Business Wire)

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