The Glass Ceiling:
How Dollhouse can Overcome the Friday Odds
When FOX first announced that Dollhouse was going to be placed onto Fridays, I wrote the following:
My immediate response: seriously, FOX? Are we going to go through this again? After Whedon’s last FOX show, Firefly, was destroyed by mismanagement by FOX, fans of the creator have already had reason to be slightly concerned about the show’s trajectory. Now, with the creative side seemingly together, comes the next blow – that even when it does air, its opportunity for success has shrunk dramatically.
Now, since that point, both creator Joss Whedon and FOX have stuck to the line that this plan actually works out for them: by creating a night of male-skewing Sci-Fi on a night where FOX has historically gone with either repeats or reality programming, the show will have low expectations and a certain security thanks to not having the same type of time period competition as it would elsewhere on the schedule. By keeping expectations low, essentially, the show’s inevitable failure to attract the kind of audience that FOX might be looking for went from a crushing disappointment to an understanding between creator and network that time might be necessary.
Unfortunately for FOX and for Whedon, the results are in and they don’t look good: the show debuted to just 4.7 Million viewers and a 2.0 rating in the key demographics. The second number isn’t half bad, good enough for second in its timeslot, but the first number is a pretty big concern for the series. It’s about the same ratings that sent Firefly to the television graveyard before its time, actually, and the plan to try to create low expectations and then spin these ratings into something positive is somewhat tough to swallow when you get trounced by Supernanny on ABC.
But there’s a fair few factors that we need to take into account here, at least before we start writing off Dollhouse as a failure. Much as I believe the jury is still out after writing my own review of the premiere, I believe there is still time for Dollhouse to turn it around. Unfortunately, the universe might well be working against Joss Whedon and his fanbase once again.
Potential Benefit: One area where Dollhouse is likely to get a lot of interest is through online viewing, with the first episode already on Hulu. Dr. Horrible’s success last year showed Whedon has a powerful online fanbase, and chances are that Dollhouse is going to be a fairly big internet success for FOX.
The Problem: While online views are being counted and are certainly an important part of the current television landscape, they don’t create advertising dollars and we’ve yet to see a show really expand its Nielsen ratings enough to justify such actions. As long as the networks are run by ad dollars, there is every concern that online views won’t make as fundamental a difference as they really should.
Potential Benefit: Let’s face it, this wasn’t the best night to premiere this show. Not only was it a Friday night, which is busy for the viewers in the key demographics in the first place, but it was also the Friday night before Valentine’s Day, and the debut of Friday the 13th reboot in theatres which pulled some very impressive numbers with $19 Million on Friday alone. This implies that a lot of people who might watch Dollhouse weren’t home, and that they left their trusty DVRs in charge of recording it for viewing at a later date. Those numbers won’t be in for a while, but one would expect a substantial increase in the number of viewers involved.
The Problem: Unfortunately, people are busy every Friday night, even if not to this degree. There’s always going to be a new movie, always going to be people heading out on the town, and Friday-night TV viewing is not something that the people in this key demo do very often. And while they might tape it for a few weeks, there’s also some people who won’t bother to watch or will forget about it entirely.
Potential Benefit: Well, theoretically before we received the evidence, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles was a sci-fi show with a built-in audience that might find in Dollhouse another way to spend their Friday night.
The Problem: Terminator delivered its lowest ratings ever by about 30%, absolutely crumbling on a night where its core fanbase was elsewhere, and it appears that it was not the sort of stable lead-in Dollhouse could have used. Perhaps FOX should have scheduled an extra-special one-hour edition of American Idol for this Friday, showing more clips from the Top 36 contestants that wasn’t shown earlier? When so many FOX shows are given Idol lead-ins to give them a boost, you’d think that Dollhouse could have gotten something better than a floundering Sci-Fi show to start off with.
Potential Benefit: With Whedon’s fans, and those who know and respect his work, there is going to be some impression that he deserves time to put this show together. The premiere didn’t blow me away, nor did it seem designed to, and as a result one feels as if Whedon is working towards something better but just hasn’t gotten there yet. That type of feeling will drive many to stick with the series, and will create a core group of committed viewers.
The Problem: Unfortunately, I don’t know what people who aren’t aware of Whedon’s past work will do with a premiere that was somewhat slow moving – while the show demonstrated solid traction by only dipping slightly at the half-hour point of the episode, will those viewers be back next weekend? And will those who don’t know Whedon’s track record feel like things are moving fast enough? I’d love to give them more credit than that, but unfortunately casual viewers will always peel away from science fiction eventually.
Word of Mouth
Potential Benefit: Whedon fans are loud and boisterous, and this is the type of show that with mass-internet proliferation has the potential to expand its audience by people talking about it.
The Problem: Word of mouth isn’t all positive – most critics’ reviews were somewhat tepid on the premiere (and the other episodes screened), and even internet chatter on message boards has that distinct feeling that people just aren’t engaged by this show yet. This is going to make things even tougher for the show, so long as the mixed voices overwhelm those who are more enthusiastic.
Lack of Other Options
Potential Benefit: FOX isn’t holding onto any midseason shows right now (unless you count heldover episodes of Hole in the Wall and The Moment of Truth), and since Terminator performed so much worse chances are that it would be dropped before Dollhouse would. This gives the show, at the very least, some time to stabilize.
The Problem: FOX has shown in the past that it, like CBS, can often show repeats of House that get better ratings than what Terminator did last night, and if Dollhouse starts to sink to those levels FOX might decide that it’s not even worth it. While there might not be obvious options available, I won’t put anythign past FOX at this point.
Right now, Dollhouse would be considered a show on the bubble: it’s got the internet’s attention, it’s got an upward trajectory of quality if you believe the creative forces behind the show, and it’s got solid but certainly not spectacular ratings for its timeslot. The problem right now is that you can’t monetize internet buzz, you can’t trust viewers to be patient in terms of the show’s quality, and you certainly can’t expect everyone who watched the premiere to come back a week later with a show with such blatant science fiction elements.
All fans can do is hope that the people who watch it on Hulu will watch it live when there isn’t a nostalgic horror remake in theatres, and that the buzz it achieved doesn’t just dry up now that the initial ratings are in. The timeslot alone placed a glass ceiling in Dollhouse’s way to true success, but unless it begins to threaten to break through it I don’t know if decidedly average is going to be enough to keep the show on the air.