This year’s second season finale of “Downton Abbey” on PBS gave the network its largest audience in years, and upped its “Masterpiece Theatre” brand 18-34 female demographic by a staggering 251%.
What a coup in this era of segmentation -- where so many outlets are competing for everyone’s very limited time.
The British series itself, a well-written, high-production-value, period-piece soap opera -- think of it as an early 21th century “Dynasty,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “One Life to Live” and maybe a little “Brady Bunch” (come on, doesn’t Lady Edith resemble Jan Brady, just a little?) mashup -- was an unlikely contender for the hearts and minds of American TV watchers. The series had a relatively slow start; many fans first checked it out on Netflix or Hulu after its first season Emmy win for Best Mini-series. This year “Downton Abbey” will be competing in the Drama Series category.
And, from a digital standpoint, I’m happy to say that I take back much of what I wrote back in 2010 in one of my first blog posts about PBS’ stalled digital strategy. When season two premiered, PBS, having finally embraced the digital world in full force, allowed for online streaming right after each West Coast airing, and kept the entire second season up until just this week. The short ad for Viking River Cruises was a small price to pay for 24-hour accessibility to a very addictive and visually stunning series.
For me, this is finally the moment that “TV everywhere,” the elusive tagline we’ve been hearing about but never actually seeing for the last 10 years, became a reality. I watched the first series on a TV with Netflix enabled through Wii (really, you’re supposed to exercise with it?), caught the second season in every room of my home (thanks to a U-Verse DVR), and when I missed it, watched it on the PBS’ terrific iPad app at work (shh, don't tell the boss!). Now I know this isn't the only show that works like this, but it's the first one I experienced in this fashion.
If you crave more digital accessibility to the series, unedited episodes from the original U.K. airings are available for $2.99 a pop on iTunes. For even more, the richly illustrated companion book, “The World of Downton Abbey” (it’s quite good) is available as an Amazon digital download for Kindle. You never have to leave your couch! As someone in the TV history business, it was fun to delve even deeper into the have/have not genre by watching episodes of 1971’s TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Even “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ “Gosford Park,” the show’s inspiration, is available on Netflix.
How do we know the show is a hit? On the coattails of the series’ success, parody after parody, all hoping to become the next viral sensation, are popping up all over YouTube. Strangely, one of the best standups, “Saturday Night Live’”s faux promo for “Downton Abbey” as done by Spike TV, has not been made a more shareable clip.
Now the bad news, as far as we know, the content won’t always be there when we’re ready for it. This week, with plenty of warning, PBS stopped streaming “Downton Abbey,” and, as with all Netflix offerings, videos can appear or disappear at any time. That’s probably why the proclamations of the death of the DVD industry were slightly premature -- there has yet to be a place where consumers and collectors can be confident that their favorite series will always be available year after year. So far, Apple’s iTunes has recently come out the winner now that account purchase data are stored in their cloud and erasure from your system no longer means you don’t own it.
So for now, let’s applaud the real beginning of “TV everywhere,” and go back to TV nowhere, where perhaps “Downton”’s “downstairs” cast Anna and Bates sum it up best:
Bates: I don't know if I've dreaded this moment or longed for it.
Anna: Well, either way, it's happened.