Timeshifting Terminator and Dollhouse

I was struck by these promising numbers regarding the number of viewers using DVRs to timeshift episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse, FOX’s ratings-challenged Friday-night block of science fiction.

I started off as a big fan of TSCC, a series which, especially as it hit its stride at the start of season two, seemed on its way to assuming the mantle of the nearly-departed Battlestar Galactica. Reflecting the new tone of SF on television, Chronicles is moody, nuanced, and — with its tangled motifs of time travel and maternal distress — introspective to the point of convolution. I have nowhere near the same appreciation for Dollhouse, which seems to me the very definition of misbegotten: a rather obvious, emptily sensational concept yoked to an unimaginatively-cast lineup of unlikeable characters. As this Penny Arcade comic and accompanying commentary observes, Dollhouse is interesting primarily for what it reveals about the changing author function in serial television: we’re now to the point where we measure the quality of certain shows based on hypothetical extrapolations about how good the text would have been had network execs (those good old go-to villains) not interfered with the showrunner’s divine inspiration.

Significantly, though, I’ve only watched the first episode of Dollhouse; the second and third installments await on my DVR, along with the most recent Chronicles. Placing the shows together on Friday night seemed like a certain death sentence — cult TV fans will never forgive the sin NBC committed against the original Star Trek in 1968-1969, leaving its third season to wither on the ice-floe slot of Fridays at 10 p.m., well away from its target audience — except for one thing. Cult TV has cult viewing habits associated with it, and one of the things we fans do is relocate episodes to spaces in our schedule better suited to focused, attentive viewing. In a word, we timeshift. The sagging numbers for Dollhouse and Chronicles both received a giant boost when DVR statistics were factored in, suggesting not just that the shows might have some life in them yet, but that new technologies of viewing may make the difference.

Of course, we’ve been timeshifting TV for years, first through the VCR and now through any number of digitally-based tools for spooling, streaming, and stealing video. The new technology I refer to is monitorial: the ability to track and quantify this collective behavior. That a once private, even renegade practice is now on the broadcasters’ radar is dishearteningly panoptic in one sense; in another sense, impossible to separate from the first, it may represent a new kind of power — a fannish vox populi to which the producers of beleaguered but promising series might listen.