Dollhouse: Patton Oswalt appeared with Eliza Dushku in Friday's episode, "Man On The Street," broadly advertised as a game-changer.
It doesn't seem, at first glance, like the end of Battlestar Galactica on Friday nights should have anything to do with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. While both are on Friday nights, Battlestar aired at 10:00 p.m., while Dollhouse aired at 9:00. Shouldn't that scheduling have worked to everyone's advantage, creating a night of smart sci-fi/fantasy programming that would logically appeal to some of the same people?
Maybe, but note that that Dollhouse, despite scrambling the order of episodes somewhat, chose to roll out its sixth episode — the one both Whedon and star Eliza Dushku publicly said would represent the real ramping-up of the series — on the same night as the Battlestar finale.
It could be a coincidence, but there are a few reasons — aside from the obvious logical crossover in audiences — why it might be logical to think that the end of Battlestar is the right time to go for a Dollhouse push. Dollhouse, of course, has had more problems than competition, including so-so reviews and reported behind-the-scenes tinkering. But if they're going to make a move, this might be the right moment.
How the DVR is both a blessing and a curse for a Friday-night show, after the jump...
The first is audience splintering, meaning that as we've talked about before, every show is going for a smaller and smaller audience. There was a time when basic-cable audiences would have been considered statistical noise; a network show's audience would never be seriously interfered with by something airing on Sci-Fi.
Audience spread between networks and cable has changed that equation substantially. Battlestar drew a couple of million people a week on Friday nights; that's in the neighborhood of half the size of Dollhouse's audience. Still smaller, but definitely enough to make a dent, particularly if you're talking about the show's ability to attract what you might call "power viewers" — the really dedicated sci-fi/fantasy-heads who will not only watch a show but obsess over it, talk about it online, and become word-of-mouth generators. If those people already have a Friday night show that's an event for them, even if it's an hour earlier, then getting them to spread that attention to another show might be problematic — especially, though not exclusively, if it airs on the same night. And as audiences get smaller and niches get smaller, the number of things to look out for increases.
The second reason is the role of the DVR. It's logical to assume that a significant chunk of the people watching Friday-night shows are recording them, not watching them live, and the data backs this up with Dollhouse. Assume some audience crossover with Battlestar; if you're already recording one show on Friday nights that you'll have to catch up with later, are you as likely to record another? Even if it's not a direct conflict, it seems at least plausible that there's some interference. You might watch something at 9 and something at 10, but will you build up two hours you have to catch up with later?
The third reason is somewhat related to the second: with more and more people watching TV online, shows are increasingly forced to compete with everything else that might logically occupy the people they're trying to reach, not just with things that originally broadcast at the same time. If you, as a viewer, sit down with a fixed amount of time (say, on a weekend) to catch up with something you enjoy, every show is now in competition with every other show. Sunday shows are competing against Wednesday shows; shows on the same network are competing against each other.
So when you are trying to appeal to smart people who like byzantine plotting and dark-hued sci-fi, you've got an opening any time something else that's all-consuming for those people loosens its grip on them. By this logic, the end of Battlestar Galactica might make an opportune time for a Dollhouse reboot, even if Dollhouse aired on Tuesdays.
As for whether Dollhouse got better on Friday as promised, I would say yes. In keeping with the limited number of hours in a day, I hadn't had a chance to see much of it until this weekend, when I caught up with the last five episodes — including the much-ballyhooed "Man On The Street" from Friday night — online. I liked it substantially more than I expected to, and while the early episodes are enjoyable (if uneven), it's true that "Man On The Street" broadens the show's reach substantially, giving it the kind of meta-arc that shows like Alias and The X-Files — and, certainly, Whedon's own Buffy The Vampire Slayer — used to give heft to stories of monsters/spies of the week.
Dollhouse isn't a great show yet, but it's an interesting show that raises some interesting questions. Will the publicity push work to pick up audiences who didn't show up for the first five episodes? Maybe, maybe not. But the notion that the show upped the stakes with the most recent installment isn't a PR invention, and it's not surprising that Whedon is taking the opportunity to make a play for folks who find themselves without a Friday-night favorite.