Bowing to the fact that convention isn't working for the drama about plane-crash survivors on a surreal island, the network is taking the unusual step of turning "Lost" into a limited-run series.
It will run for three shorter and uninterrupted seasons until its "highly anticipated and shocking finale" in the 2009-10 season, ABC said Monday.
The series, which saw its ratings drop this season amid complaints about scheduling, an increasingly meandering plot and unpopular new characters, still must prove itself to disenchanted viewers to survive.
"Due to the unique nature of the series, we knew it would require an end date to keep the integrity and strength of the show consistent throughout and to give the audience the payoff they deserve," ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson said in a statement.
Typically, networks milk a series until it runs dry of ratings and then drop the ax.
Last January, "Lost" producers said they were talking with the network about setting an end date.
Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have agreed to remain with the show, now in its third season, through the end, ABC said. Lindelof created the show with J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber.
"We always envisioned `Lost' as a show with a beginning, middle and end," Lindelof and Cuse said in a statement. "By officially announcing exactly when that ending will be, the audience will now have the security of knowing that the story will play out as we've intended."
A total of 48 episodes will air over the next three seasons, with 16 episodes running without a break each season in the style of Fox's "24." That will take care of viewer complaints about reruns that left them dangling.
ABC's effort to make this a two-part season for "Lost" by pausing midway to make room for another show, the quickly canceled "Day Break," also proved a flop. Serial dramas with complex plots, like "Lost" or CBS' "Jericho," have found it difficult to regain viewers after a break.
The average number of episodes for a series is 22, which isn't enough to stretch through an entire season without reruns or a hiatus.
"Lost" once drew an impressive 20 million-plus viewers as it helped raise ABC from ratings purgatory, gained cultural-phenomenon status and won the 2005 Emmy for best drama.
But in its third season "Lost" took a nose dive, with recent episodes drawing 12 million or fewer viewers. A time-slot change, to 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday, which put it up against CBS' "CSI: NY," was a factor.
Viewership numbers also don't reflect how many people save the shows on their digital video recorders to watch more than 24 hours later, and "Lost" gains viewers when the DVR audience is taken into account.
The ensemble cast includes Naveen Andrews, Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly among the survivors of Oceanic Air flight 815 and Michael Emerson as the leader of the dangerous "Others" who live on the island.