So Dollhouse was canceled. I watched a couple of episodes and it never grabbed me; the second season numbers indicate I wasn’t alone. But maybe this is actually good news for Joss Whedon. Maybe this is what it takes to get him into the business of changing the way we consume media.
It’s obvious that the stuff that Whedon does isn’t built for a mass network television audience. Firefly and Dollhouse have proven this fairly conclusively; I don’t doubt that Whedon could change up what he does to make it more mainstream, but why should he? Not everything should appeal to everybody. It should appeal to somebody, and Whedon has that somebody down pat – he has a certain audience that follows him from project to project, loyal to him and what he does. That audience isn’t quite enough to keep a show on a network alive, but it could still be harnessed in really exciting ways.
Whedon needs to fully leap into the world of direct to DVD and On Demand programming. He’s already dipped his toe in those waters with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, which was an artistic success and apparently fiscally successful enough to warrant an impending sequel. Instead of going through a network, dealing with their interference and their programming whims and the need to appeal to a very wide audience so as to sell time to Viagra advertisers Whedon can concentrate on serving his fanbase with his vision.
He’s the perfect creator to make a major leap into this arena because he’s likely the creator with the most ardent fanbase today*. There’s a certain number of Whedonites out there – probably in the hundreds of thousands – who will plop down money to buy/rent/download anything Whedon puts out. Starting from that base Whedon can market his product out; while Dr. Horrible started as something specific to Whedonites it definitely crossed over, and that was a project that started as a lark.
It wouldn’t be easy. Whedon would have to adjust the way that he creates, and his budgets would, at first, be much lower than they are with network TV. But if he is willing to put the work in he can change the entire paradigm of how we consume content from our favorite creators. Striking deals with as many On Demand platforms as possible – cable companies, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, iTunes – and possibly hooking up with a DVD company, Whedon could reach markets and niches that Fox simply never serves.
Of course there are people already in those trenches – web series are becoming a dime a dozen. And the best bets for Whedon to move into this world – direct to DVD or On Demand movies featuring characters from Buffy and Angel - are out of his hands, since he doesn’t own those characters. But Whedon has a creative well that hasn’t run dry yet, and he has a fanbase that will support him in the first stages of creating something new.
This is the direction that things are headed no matter what, and Whedon can serve as the person who breaks down the wall, who takes the shameful connotation off of content created just for DVD or On Demand or the internet. If Whedon brings his A game, gathers his usual band of collaborators and gets his fanbase fired up and involved (which he did for Dr. Horrible), he could drag the rest of the industry kicking and screaming into a new world where niche programming can find its level and survive. I’m not in denial about how tough it would be or how slow it would start out, especially budgetarily, but it’s beyond time that someone major took a serious step into bringing content directly to fans instead of relying on a middle-man.
Imagine a world where a show like Arrested Development or Battlestar Galactica isn’t constantly in fear of getting the axe, where shows don’t have to dumb it down to reach the widest audience, where creators don’t have to worry about skittish advertisers, where fans put up or shut up by supporting what they really like.
* Obviously the real person who could make this happen would be George Lucas, but as long as he gets to dictate his terms to studios and TV networks, there’s no reason for him to take his stuff On Demand just yet.