How Will Dollhouse Fare on Fridays? What Should Fox Do?

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November 9th, 2008

It can't be easy being a network scheduler.  I know it seems like everyone and their mother thinks they can do a better job.  But some of those people are the same people who don't think ABC should cancel Pushing Daisies, even though it's ABC's worst performing scripted show.  It's not easy being a network scheduler.

A lot has already been written about Fox's new show Dollhouse airing on Fridays beginning February 13, 2009. Friday the thirteenth!  Fridays has been a particularly barren night when it comes to broadcast television viewing.  A lot of people will say that's because everyone goes out on Friday.   It's true that less people watch TV on Fridays, but it's not half as many as on Thursday, it's more like 85% as many.  The problem for the broadcast networks, especially among younger viewers is that even those who stay home and are watching TV, there are many more of them watching the programs on other channels besides ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, and NBC.

The networks must accept that less people watch TV on Fridays and Saturdays.  Some of that just shows that the TV advertising business still works (at least they will certainly claim that to be the case) and that some of those missing people aren't out drinking like fishes, but are at the newly released movies that the networks have been advertising.  But the networks do not have to accept that they can't command more share of the viewers who are watching TV to Friday nights.

I can't fault the networks for trying to find programming that will capture bigger share on Fridays.   But I also couldn't really fault them for pretty much abandoning it completely in favor of less expensive unscripted programming (say, as ABC has done).

But what about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles moving to Fridays to be joined by the new Dollhouse?  I'm not very optimistic about this working out very well for these shows or for Fox, but I don't know that I'd do anything differently either if I were responsible for scheduling and only got to pick when the shows aired and not what shows would be on.

I've written about buy-in before, and it's very clear to me that for series television, with rare exception, plots and premises that require a high degree of suspension of disbelief do not become hits.  And by "rare exception" I can think of only one show currently still on the air that meets the criteria: LOST.  That's all I have.  One show.  The premise of Dollhouse in short is that there is a group of people who have had their memories wiped clean and can be imprinted with all kinds of personalities to be use to do...various things in various situations.  While there's no doubt in my mind the premise can and will find an audience, there is significant doubt in my mind that it could be a large audience -- regardless of what night it airs.

On Fridays it literally stands no chance of a huge audience.  I see little opportunity for it to attract audiences as large as what CBS gets with its procedurals.   Could it find 8 million viewers?  Sure.  Keep them?  Not so sure.  Could it pull a 2.5 or higher rating among 18-49 year olds?  That's definitely in the realm of possibility.  Sure, it's possible, but the question is, even if it does, given the cost for such shows is Fox better off economically doing that than trying to find some unscripted cheap content that will pull a 1.8 rating among 18-49 year olds?

One problem is that while it's very inexpensive to test and learn on the Internet, doing so in broadcast television is not cheap.  If Fox wanted to know the high bar for "what could be done on a Friday?" it would air new episodes of House there a couple of times.  It won't do that simply because it's *already* sure that doing so would pull lower numbers than airing House sometime Monday-Thursday and the goal is to make as much money as possible.  So even as a test, you won't likely see a new episode of House on Fridays (or a new episode of Grey's Anatomy on ABC, or a new CSI on CBS, or a new episode of The Office on NBC).

I'm not very optimistic for Dollhouse on Fridays, though I agree with those who suggest that Fox can be more patient with it on Fridays than it could if it put it on as the lead-in for 24.  But with the goal of making the most money, expensive scripted shows like Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles don't seem well married with Friday nights (and though I am a TSCC fan, I am not optimistic for a 3rd season of TSCC regardless of when Fox airs it).

What would I do?  I'm sure this won't make me any friends, but with the goal of making the most money, I think at least during the American Idol run I'd milk it way more than Fox has ever done.  I know there are some offshoots that cover Idol in syndication, but I'd turn Fridays into a two-hour coverage of the American Idol contest.  I'd cover American Idol like ESPN covers football from 11am-1pm on Sundays.  Clips, talking heads, interviews, human interest stories and predictions.  It  would cost practically nothing to make and whether you or I would watch it, there's obviously an audience for it.  I wouldn't watch it, but I never caught the Idol bug.  But it's not lost on me that millions have.  A couple of hours treating it like ESPN treats the NFL is exactly what I would do.  And that's how I'd program Fridays January through May if I were running Fox.

One final note:  a lot of people are squawking about Dollhouse not getting any promotion by airing after American Idol.  It's not a foregone conclusion that it won't air once or twice after Idol.  I'll be at least a little surprised if that doesn't happen.

Fortunately for fans of scripted programming (and I am one of those) and especially Joss Whedon fans, I'm just a blogger, not a programmer at Fox!  But when it comes to making money, I like the prospects for the American Idol coverage better than Fox's current plans for Friday nights starting February 13.  I'm sure you have your own ideas...

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