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Why PBS airs Downton Abbey and Sherlock weeks after they've run in the UK

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every time PBS comes to the TCA press tour, as it does every July and January, Paula Kerger, the network's president and CEO, is asked a similar question. Why does the network air Downton Abbey and Sherlock, its biggest hits, months after they air in the United Kingdom?

Arguably, that question will be even more pressing now that the network's airing of the adaptation of Hilary Mantel's much-loved novel Wolf Hall will be delayed by several months from its UK broadcast as well. (The British get it in January. We will get it in April.)

Kerger always gives the same answer: PBS is always exploring all options, but it's unlikely to suddenly shift its position. And with a new Sherlock special in the works and a new season of Downton airing, it's time to answer the question once and for all.

Okay, why does PBS refuse to do this?

There's really no good reason for it to do so. In fact, if it did, it could very well hurt both shows.


Basically, yeah.

Certainly, the network is losing some theoretical number of viewers of its programs to those who download or stream their British broadcasts illegally. But that number almost certainly isn't enough to offset the uncertainty that would result if it suddenly pushed Downton into the heat of the fall premiere season (the time when it airs in the U.K.), or if it aired Sherlock during the year-end holidays, where the U.K. has a rich tradition of airing new programs, but the US does not.

Everybody I know pirates those shows

You are reading this on the internet, so this is probably true.

But the important thing to remember is that the US TV audience is vast, encompassing just under 120 million households with at least one television set (and usually more), to say nothing of all of those people watching on computers, tablets, and smartphones. And a lot of those people — almost certainly the vast majority ­— view their favorite programs as a kind of habit they get into for a while and then let go after they're done. They're likely aware that these shows are airing in the U.K., but they're not going to make a point of seeking out illegal copies of the shows, because they'll be airing on television soon enough anyway.

Remember: Unless you know exactly where to look, diving into the world of torrents and illegal streams can be complicated and even isolating (especially considering how hard many of these sites work to get you to click on anything but the link for the torrent or illegal stream, the better to provide advertiser clickthrough). And if Downton is just a habit you pick up every January, then let drop every February, it's far easier to just wait for that to happen than actively go seeking out the episodes or even spoilers for the episodes.


The cast of Downton Abbey in the season four finale. (PBS)

Certainly, PBS loses some portion of viewership to illegal options. But the Downton audience is in the 8 million range and actually surpassed that in the season five premiere, which pulled in 10.1 million viewers. It's the most significant program the network has aired (in terms of cementing its image as a pop culture force) since the debut of the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War in 1990.

Whatever number of viewers watch the show illegally pales in comparison to that audience. And some of those viewers almost certainly watch the episodes again on TV, while some other percentage watches all TV via illegal means and would be unlikely to watch on PBS anyway. The number of people who would watch Downton legally but don't because they can't get it right away is a percentage of a small percentage. PBS can afford to let them go. In fact, moving the program to accommodate them would probably hurt the show more.

Why is that the case?

Downton Abbey airs in the U.K. in the fall, which is the heart of premiere season in the US. That may not seem like a big deal, but it is for a network like PBS, whose marketing budget pales in comparison to that of the big networks (and is funded mostly by viewers like you). By bringing the show back in January, PBS is copying many other cable networks and smaller outlets in exploiting a period when the big networks mostly lie fallow. (This has changed in recent years, but PBS is so established in the January slot that, again, it can count on the force of habit.)

In January, Downton gets to be a phenomenon for a few weeks. It pulls great ratings, even opposite the Super Bowl or Grammys. It gets nominated for Emmys. It commands the attention of the nation's parents on Sunday nights. There's little guarantee any of that would be true in the fall.

Okay, sure. I'll buy Downton, but what about Sherlock?

This one, to be sure, is trickier, and you'll notice that where PBS delays Downton by months, Sherlock is delayed by only a matter of two weeks. What's more, PBS brought it back so quickly, even though it already had Downton airing, and it paired the show with Downton for its three-week run.

Though Sherlock's ratings are good, particularly for PBS, they still lost over 50 percent of the Downton audience for the third season. (Some of this was likely due to starting a 90-minute episode of television at 10 p.m. Eastern.) The season premiere drew a respectable 4 million viewers, but episode two dropped from there to 2.9 million. That's still a great number for PBS, but compared to Downton, it feels paltry.

If PBS makes a move to go day-and-date with the U.K., it will almost certainly be for Sherlock, a show with a younger audience than Downton, a younger audience that may be more comfortable with tracking down illegal copies of episodes. What's more, though Sherlock is a huge, mainstream hit in the U.K., it's very much a cult hit in the US. This means the ratings are lower here, sure, but it also means that the audience is much more fanatical about the program. And that means it's more likely to go in search of the episodes as soon as they're done airing in the U.K.

Are there any other issues with PBS trying to do this?

Yeah. PBS can't just up and air these things whenever it wants to. It has to cut a deal with the shows' British producers, meaning ITV in the case of Downton and the BBC in the case of Sherlock. But the BBC, at least, has shown a willingness to deal if the price is right. After all, BBC America airs Doctor Who on the same day in the US as it does in the U.K. (though it's a distant corporate cousin of the BBC). So it can happen. PBS would just have to really want to make it happen and be willing to pay whatever the British are looking for.

So this isn't going to happen?

Probably not, no. PBS is moving into the future in cool ways, and it has a great streaming site, for instance.

But the status quo is only going to change if it becomes untenable, and the status quo works just fine for PBS here. Downton and Sherlock have brought PBS the kind of attention it hasn't had for decades, and that means more consistent corporate sponsorship, as well as more money coming in at pledge drives. (Masterpiece, the program that airs both shows under its umbrella, had struggled to find consistent corporate sponsorship for a few years prior to the arrival of both. It doesn't struggle with that anymore.)

This idea might make sense to those of us who are used to watching whatever we want, whenever we want, thanks to the wonders of the Internet. But the number of people doing that within the TV universe is still too small to really affect these sorts of larger issues.

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