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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
It's my father's voice dreaming of / Sailors sailing off in the morning
— Wilco, Poor Places
October 4, 2009
Dollhouse’s Imminent End and the Future of Television

It should come as no surprise that the cancellation of Dollhouse is imminent.
The show’s ratings were miserable last year, and the new season has posted lower numbers than the first.

Dollhouse is a great show, although the first five episodes were so boring that I didn’t bother buying the DVD set. I figured I’d wait until it was cancelled in season two and then just buy a two season set. It looks like I might have that chance after all.

Dollhouse has a rabid fan base, and Joss Whedon a solid reputation as a writer. So why aren’t people tuning in? Why, in a world where almost 10 million people tune in to watch J.J. AbramsFringe are only 2.5 million of them watching Dollhouse?

I suspect that the answer lies with demographics, the Internet and the changing nature of the television game.

It’s important not to underestimate the impact of those first five episodes. While there may have been nothing inherently wrong with them, they were boring conventional television shows with nice clean plots that wrapped up. Dollhouse’s ratings slipped steadily from episode one. The studio had publicly tinkered with the pilot and forced a reshoot, and we’ll never know if the original pilot and its subsequent episodes would have hooked viewers for the long term. That’s unfortunate.

Fundamentally though, I suspect that Dollhouse’s problems lie with a young, Internet savvy audience. I suspect there’s quite a bit of crossover between The Guild’s audience and Dollhouse’s. This is an audience that’s accustomed to getting its entertainment when and how it wants it, not when a television network sees fit to air it. It’s also an audience that’s not going to spend the $2.49 per week to buy an episode at the iTunes store when alternatives exist (and those alternatives most definitely do exist.)

By contrast, Fringe probably has a broader and older audience of more conventional television viewers. Fringe is—and don’t get me wrong, I like the show quite a bit—basically the X-Files re-imagined by the mind of J.J. Abrams. It’s comfortable, familiar territory.

It’s interesting to note that Fringe appears in the list of recent bestsellers in iTunes while Dollhouse does not. It may be that that broader audience is more willing or able to spend money to download it: it may be that they’re not as aware of the alternatives.

Direct sales to consumers are emerging as a distribution channel, causing the cable and satellite companies a great deal of frustration. In Canada the broadcast networks are looking for direct payments from cable companies to make up for revenue they’ve lost. It’s a desperate move, and one that’s at best a stopgap. The cable companies are just a central distribution channel, and the Canadian networks have yet to create their own for some reason. Hulu is an obvious model, and one that would help them all maintain control over their products.

Either way, the broadcast television model is dying a fairly slow and painful death right now. The traditional funding model for a TV show has been a single use one: air it once and sell enough advertising to cover production costs. Sure you can hope for syndication and reruns do happen, but fundamentally that first airing has been the source of the greatest revenue: you wouldn’t produce a show if it could make money on the first airing. The rest was gravy. In the modern world of television there’s more opportunities for gravy—DVD sales, advertising supported streaming sites and iTunes sales are good examples—but I doubt the gravy is rich enough to support the production yet.

Dollhouse, as it turns out, isn’t even doing the gravy very well. Sales of the DVD were lower than expected iTunes episode sales aren’t great.

Ultimately with low ratings and (apparently) low residual sales, Dollhouse will die. It won’t be the last good show to do so. There’s no doubt that television is in a liminal period right now. The industry hasn’t yet figured out how to engage the first generation that was raised with the Internet as a primary, not a secondary, medium. They may yet, but I suspect that an old adage remains true:

The revolution will not be televised, but the proceedings will be available online.

That the revolution has already begun is certain, and Dollhouse is one of its early victims.

Posted by skooter at 10:17 PM This entry is filed under Entertainment, Technology.
This entry is tagged: Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, Television

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