Today PBS announced that the fourth season of Downton Abbey will premiere in the U.S. on January 5. Yes, that's about fourth months after it premieres in the U.K. It's not like we didn't expect this news, but it seems particularly harsh. And there's a very simple solution.
At the end of last season (in February, about two months after the finale aired in Britain), Denise Martin of Vulture reported on why PBS waits so long to air its most popular show, which is a co-production of the British Carnival Films and PBS's Masterpiece. While PBS programming chief Beth Hoppe told Martin that execs were "absolutely considering" a simultaneous airing, she made it even more clear that the delay wouldn't end any time soon. Why? 1) People still watched; 2) the fall is already crowded with all the other networks' new shows, making it harder for PBS to compete for attention, and 3) PBS has to edit the UK version because ITV is a commercial network—and doing that more quickly would cost more money that public broadcasting probably doesn't have to spend in the first place.
Indeed, perhaps we are underestimating the strain on PBS's resources that it would take to give us more Downton in September. But none of these problems seem insurmountable. How? Well, the fact that millions still watched despite the delay is a good thing, and even more would tune into PBS if they aired at the same time. There would be even more excitement in the air. As for marketing competition from the networks, Downton is established enough now that fans would be excited about every Downton nugget—like, today—regardless of how heavily, say, ABC is promoting Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ahead of a fall debut. Sure, perhaps fewer cast members would be able to visit the states for late-night talk show interviews, but does Downton really need the same PR push as it once did? It just needs to stop the waiting. That editing problem—the ITV version has a different length, and PBS has "to plug up the holes"—does seem like the hardest to get around. Of course, as petulant as PBS seems, we're also being petulant.
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We're now (almost, kinda, sorta) upon a fourth season of Downton. The word "phenomenon" is often thrown around. At this point it seems only natural that British and U.S. audiences get to enjoy the benefits of cultural globalization. Hey, by the time the fourth Harry Potter book came out it was published in both the U.S. and U.K. at the same time.
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PBS's other exports haven't caught on the same way Downton did. Call the Midwife did, according to Variety, give "PBS a year-to-year boost in audience of approximately 25%," but Jeremy Piven's Mr. Selfridge hasn't really become the next Downton as far as buzz, despite what Deadline might have reported. Selfridge, like Downton, first aired on ITV and then PBS.
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And, sure, there have been complaints that Downton is on a downward slope in quality, but PBS's imported dramatic flagship isn't going anywhere. Producer Gareth Neame told the New York Daily News recently that he's hoping the show sticks around for 10 seasons. Maybe, by that point, Downton fever will have subsided and we won't care whether or not we get to watch it at the same time as the Brits—or maybe by that time the series will just air simultaneously. But, for now, shouldn't PBS give fans what they want when they want, especially since some of us don't want to torrent? Or maybe we're just being petulant.