'Previously, On ...': For TV Catch-Ups, A Golden Age Lost, Big Love, Dexter — TV's wealth of heavily plotted serial dramas means heavy reliance on that episode-opening recap that brings new viewers up to speed. It's an art — especially if you don't want spoilers.

'Previously, On ...': For TV Catch-Ups, A Golden Age

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Unidentified Announcer #1: Previously on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today the trustees of those two programs confirmed that the bad economy is having a big effect.

Unidentified Man #2: Well, unless the Congress and the president do something about it, it means that Social Security would only be able to pay out about 75 percent of the currently…

SIEGEL: Okay not quite the same thing as you'd hear after previously on "Grey's Anatomy," or previously on "24," but reporter Nate DiMeo is going to take us through the pre-show recap now, not of our own program but of those other ones. He'll explain why right now there are so many densely plotted, heavily serialized shows on television, shows that require the recap.

NATE DiMEO: It didn't used to be like this. It used to that the only time a story on TV got so complicated that you needed a refresher to help you out was for one of those very special, two-part sitcom episodes.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Brady Bunch")

Unidentified Man #3: The Brady boys never thought their vacation in Hawaii would end up in an ancient burial cave.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: Then Greg is wearing the idol when he has a terrible wipeout while surfing.

DiMEO: But things have changed, and perhaps nothing embodies that change more than three simple words:

Unidentified Man #4: Previously on "Lost."

Mr. CARLTON CUSE (Executive Producer, "Lost"): It's funny. The television business has changed dramatically in the last few years because serialized shows were dead for a long time.

DiMEO: Carlton Cuse is one of the executive producers of "Lost." He says today's viewer has the tools to follow intricate plots that writers just couldn't pull off before, things like DVRs and streaming video and DVD box sets. We are living in the golden age of the previously on. Shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Gossip Girl" and "Big Love" and "Desperate Housewives" all come with a pre-show primer.

Cuse says that all of the subplots of back stories of subplots of tangents on TV can keep a network executive up at night, worried about losing overwhelmed viewers.

Mr. CUSE: While most network executives would acknowledge that it's impossible to catch the audience up, they feel like they can't just abandon trying to do that. So they put the previously on, just in some hope that if you just are watching on the network, you're going to be able to kind of follow along.

DiMEO: In the first couple of seasons of a serialized show, the previously on typically serves the new viewer, that person who's heard good things about a show but could use a scorecard to tell the players apart.

Unidentified Woman #1: Previously on "The West Wing."

Mr. ROB LOWE (Actor): (As Sam Seaborn) My name is Sam Seaborn, and I'm the deputy communications director.

Mr. BRADLEY WHITFORD (Actor): (As Josh Lyman) Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff.

DiMEO: But by a show's third and fourth and fifth season, all pretense of catering to the lay viewer is set aside. Damon Lindelof is another executive producer on "Lost."

Mr. DAMON LINDELOF (Executive Producer, "Lost"): At this point in the game, the previously on is just to satiate the oh-yeah contingent, so that when you're the show, you go oh yeah, that's why Jack's so angry. Oh yeah, that's why Sayid has just melted out of the jungle with a gun.

DiMEO: Lindelof's says he thinks of previously on "Lost" as the equivalent of his wife sitting down right before the show starts and asking him what he needs to know. He's only got 30 seconds to tell her, but you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

Mr. LINDELOF: There's a scene where Faraday is explaining why he is going to try and change the time stream with a hydrogen bomb, and that was actually a six-and-a-half-minute-long scene. We can actually reduce it down to two lines. We can name that tune in seven seconds.

(Soundbite of television program, "Lost")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) And just how exactly do you plan on destroying this energy?

Mr. JEREMY DAVIES (As Daniel Faraday): I'm going to detonate a hydrogen bomb.

Mr. LINDELOF: That's all you need to know.

DiMEO: He says there are pitfalls to previously ons. If you're watching "Lost" or any other show with a recap, and suddenly there's a character you haven't seen in several episodes, you're just not going to be surprised when they show up in the middle of this episode.

Jeff Alexander is author of the "TV Guide to Life." He says for the most part, that just adds to the pleasure of watching the show. It's a tease, but sometimes…

(Soundbite of television program, "24")

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND (Actor): Previously on "24"…

DiMEO: It's a spoiler.

Mr. JEFF ALEXANDER (Author, "A TV Guide to Life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know From Watching Television"): The funny thing about "24" is they always have these sort of freeze frames, introducing an individual character. Now if it's a character who hasn't previously gotten one, like if it's a minor character like someone's boss or a co-worker, there's a pretty good sign that that person's going to die that episode.

DiMEO: "Lost's" season finale airs tonight. The network has been hyping it as a special, three-hour season finale event. It's not. It's a two-hour season finale. The first hour is a recap of what's happened this season. It's a giant previously on. For NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.

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