The ratings for the first two episodes of Dollhouse have been so bad that it’s in serious danger of being taken off the air within weeks, and unless something big changes, the question right now is not whether this is the last season of the show, but how long that season will be. (If it does in fact survive, please note the “unless something big changes” qualifier.) Because Fox went to all the trouble of renewing it, only to make immediate noises about yanking it, the question that’s being raised is why they renewed it in the first place. Here are some reasons I can think of:
– They were expecting bad ratings, but not the worst. While Friday night is a rotten night, and Brothers is a rotten lead-in, networks take that stuff into consideration. Fox executives knew that while Dollhouse‘s season 1 performance on a tough night was poor, it wasn’t necessarily much worse than another show might do in the same slot. And a new show would be more expensive to make than the budget-slashed Dollhouse, and wouldn’t get them any of the critical/fan brownie points they got for giving Dollhouse a second chance. So they kept it on, figuring that it might do a little better than last season. Instead, it’s done worse, but it wasn’t irrational to think it might improve.
– Fox doesn’t care about the first half of the season anyway. The first half of the season, for Fox, consists of a) Sports and b) Waiting for American Idol to come back. Because their biggest hit is a permanent midseason replacement (and so is another hit, 24), anything that happens before midseason is pretty much pointless for them. This has changed a bit this season, because their pre-Idol ratings have been better than usual (except on Friday nights). But the idea behind renewing Dollhouse was to give it another try in the dead half of the season, when the network had nothing much to lose.
– New media matters, though it’s not everything. You’ve heard this one; Dollhouse does better when online, DVD, and other formats are factored in. Because of those other formats, it might only have required a small ratings improvement to make it a better investment (whereas a show that depends entirely on the regular-TV ratings would have to do a lot better than that). Again, I think the renewal was based on the hope that there would be a little bit of improvement in the ratings (even an improvement when you factor in the fact that it has a bad lead-in), rather than a ratings dip.
I should add that I’m not rooting for Dollhouse to get canceled. The season premiere was good, the second episode had entertaining moments, and even if it were terrible, I find it imposible to root for a show to be canceled unless it’s really repugnant. (My default assumption is that when a show is canceled, whatever replaces it will probably be worse. When it’s replaced by something better, it’s a nice surprise.) It probably will get canceled, but it’ll probably just wind up getting replaced by repeats of Glee or something.
Another thing that’s often said about Dollhouse, and any show that suffers declining ratings, is that the network isn’t giving it enough promotion, and that’s why the ratings are down. This should probably be another post, but I’ve frequently had that reaction when I like a show that isn’t getting a lot of promotion. I’ve never quite figured out, though, whether there is really a direct link between insufficient promotion and low ratings. I feel like there ought to be, but I don’t know if there are actual statistics on whether that’s the case — especially since networks show a lot more promos now than they used to, and even under-promoted shows probably get a lot of on-air plugs by historical standards. But I’m going to have to use Le Google to see if there are studies of this issue: do promos drive ratings, or do they mostly make advertisers feel that their investment is being protected?