Though I don't always agree with Alan Sepinwall on all his show's critiques, I do almost always agree with him down the line about LOST, and though he generally opines on TV show quality rather than the business end, I found his thinking particularly interesting in a post of his on the coming upfronts:
Mo Ryan suggested yesterday that these pick-ups might reflect a new kind of thinking at the networks, where the broadcast ratings aren't the only factor. ("Dollhouse" gets a significant bump, for instance, once DVR and Hulu viewing is factored in.) But I also wonder if the bad economy, and the splintering TV audience, might also make the networks reluctant to let go of even some of their more marginal performers. Simply put, these shows are the devil they know. "Chuck," for instance, may have drawn mediocre ratings on Monday nights, but "Deal Or No Deal" did dramatically worse in the timeslot a week later. The idea that a new show automatically has a better shot to draw viewers than a marginal returning series may not be the case anymore, and in this scary environment, a steady number is a steady number.
I figure outside of FOX and the advertisers themselves, I looked at the DVR data on Dollhouse more than practically anyone. I think it more likely whatever potential FOX saw via Hulu and FOX.com was far more meaningful than the DVR viewers. Not particularly meaningful, perhaps, but better than nothing meaningful. At least they can make some money on the online viewing, even if it's nowhere near as much as they'd make if people were watching live.
None of the networks has a good story for showing DVR viewers are valuable for 30 second commercial spots, and especially with the reports we hear that "Remote Free TV" limited commercial interruptions won't be back for FOX next year, the DVR numbers make for good PR for Dollhouse, but little else.
I think there was something else in play with Dollhouse besides "the devil you know" aspects. I call it the CW effect. Many people don't understand how the CW even can exist. The CW is bleeding red ink, but the way it works out, it doesn't seem to matter to Warner Brothers and CBS because the studios wind up making more from the shows CW airs than they lose on the CW. As a stand alone entity, the CW losing money doesn't make much sense, but if its investors wind up ahead in the deal, who cares?
Something similar seems likely for Dollhouse. If you look at it just from the aspects of FOX broadcasting, it doesn't make sense. People will (and have) tried to slice it in a lot of ways to make it make sense, but in the end, from that view, it still really doesn't make any sense singularly from the view of FOX Broadcasting. But since Fox's studio division is in on the deal too...
If News Corp winds up making more money than it spends on the show, and more money than it would've made from doing something else, it's a good deal. It's not crystal clear to me that is actually the case, but that seems to be what they're betting on -- that News Corp comes out ahead in the deal. That the real DVD dollars will roll in, plus whatever they can make online, and internationally, plus whatever they can make in TV advertising make it all a good deal for News Corp, a better deal than airing reruns of House -- even if it doesn't look like a good deal from just the perspective of the network.
Plus, they apparently got the costs for Dollhouse down to something extremely (rivaling cable production costs, and in some cases cheaper from what I hear) low.