It doesn’t seem fair. How come our U.K. “allies” get to watch the full season of the enthralling “Downton Abbey” before sharing it with us? Shouldn’t the “special relationship” between our two countries engender more equality, bringing the show to the U.S. much sooner?
Frustrating is how kind we are with some of our hits. Season five of “Mad Men” debuted in the U.S. last March 25. It launched in the U.K. all of two days later.
Last fall, the new season of “Homeland” debuted just a week after its U.S. premiere in the Old Country.
We’re helping our addicted mates avoid the guilt of piracy to find out what Draper and Carrie M. are facing without having to wait as we must with "Downton."
In the U.K., “Downton’s” latest season wrapped in early November. A Christmas special followed last week.
But only this Sunday, can Americans – those who haven’t engaged in alternate viewing means -- start with season three on PBS. Notable is that “Downton” is unique, making the lag time for an international import far more of an issue than any show that comes to mind.
For years, PBS has run shows as part of its “Masterpiece” series – where “Downton” appears – months after a U.K. airing. Any mass complaints?
In fact, has there ever been a show debuting first outside our borders that Americans in any large number have been bothered by having to wait for?
(Can the U.S. government be blamed for this painful deprivation? Mitt Romney, for one, might say so. The decision apparently lies with PBS, which as Romney made abundantly clear during his presidential campaign receives our tax dollars.)
The Emmy-winning “Downton” focuses on Lord Grantham’s efforts to keep a mass British estate going in the early part of the 20th century as drama with his family and its servants unfolds. It's blossomed at a time when, as “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton recently said, "the television world is shrinking.”
It’s getting to the point that the “Downton” addicted have to be wary of Googling the show during its U.K. season to avoid encountering a big-time spoiler. Make one mistake and you’ll be watching the whole season waiting for that game-changing moment, intensifying the viewing experience in a negative way.
It’s like taping a sports event nowadays. In order to avoid knowing the result, you have to steer clear of ESPN.com (probably the Internet altogether) and maybe even wear Bose Noise Cancelling headphones until you can sit down to watch.
The good news is PBS is keenly aware of the growing pique with the waiting and it will be surprising if it doesn’t begin making the show available more in synch with the U.K. scedule come next season. If there isn't a change in the on-air scheduling, perhaps it's by making it available on iTunes or Netflix.
“Watch this space,” Eaton said.
The principal arguments Eaton offered against a move to air closer to the U.K. schedule include “Masterpiece” having traditionally had success in January and February when people are staying inside to avoid the bad weather. And, launching a new season in the fall could bring diminished interest as the broadcast networks debut their new fare. PBS doesn’t have the marketing dollars or on-air reach to outshout an NBC or CBS then.
But cable networks such as AMC, Showtime and brethren no longer fear placing their big hits against broadcasters. Great shows find their audiences all year.
At a New York promotional event, Eaton indicated that PBS is still grappling with how much piracy – those finding the episodes months before on the Web – hurts viewership. A PBS executive told the Hollywood Reporter “Downton” viewers are dedicated and “coming back no matter what, and they’re unlikely to be jumping on the Internet and trying to watch it illegally.” They’re also older and maybe less tech-savvy. PBS says “Downton” had 17 million viewers last season.
Gareth Neame, executive producer of the show, told the Wall Street Journal, he respects PBS’s approach, but “the gap in this day and age is not helpful.” And, he seems more wary of piracy.
“We do know that significant enough numbers of people are watching the show illegally with piracy because, understandably, in this democratic age of consuming media, people are not prepared to wait if it’s available somewhere in the world,” Neame told the Journal. “People now just say, ‘I don’t understand why I should wait for that. I’m prepared to pay for it or I’m prepared to watch it legally, but I’m not prepared to wait when somebody in another country had it four months ago.’”
Key to what happens with "Downton" season four could be how the show performs in the next few weeks. A significant drop in viewers might persuade PBS executives to follow Neame’s lead and move more with the times – a challenge Lord Grantham grapples with to keep his beloved Downton going.