Could "Downton" ever be spoiler-free?

As "Downton" airs its third season months behind the U.K. broadcast, PBS considers other options

By Daniel D'Addario

Published February 5, 2013 7:21PM (EST)

           (Masterpiece/Giles Keyte)
(Masterpiece/Giles Keyte)

While other networks were in reruns to avoid a collision with the Ravens, the 49ers and Beyoncé, PBS had yet another triumph on Super Bowl Sunday. "Downton Abbey," in its third season, averaged 6.6 million viewers Sunday night, up 69 percent from its performance the year before. And, as is typical for "Downton," it wasn't just older longtime "Masterpiece" lovers tuning in: A tweet the network sent out urging bored football fans to tune away from a blacked-out Superdome got over 3,500 retweets.

"Our social media guys were on the stick during the blackout," said Paula Kerger, the president of PBS. Comparing "humble little PBS" to other brands who used the New Orleans blackout to get brand awareness, she noted: "It was Oreo, Tide, and PBS!"

And yet questions exist about whether or not PBS is capitalizing as well as it might on newfound attention to its programming. At the center is the transatlantic broadcast lag of "Downton Abbey." The recent death of central character Lady Sybil was spoiled for some viewers by news reports and recaps from the U.K., where the character died on ITV last October; other viewers pirated the series long before its U.S. airing.

"It's complicated for a lot of reasons. If you ran it at same time as [it runs in the U.K.], you're running it at the same time as premieres," said Kerger. "Why put your best stuff against everybody else? We're showcasing it in as strong a position as we can. We don't have a huge ad budget. When people write about us, it helps us tremendously, we rely very heavily on earned media and the kindness of strangers." To hold the show until it can air in the doldrums of midwinter -- as it has the past two years, and likely will for the already-greenlighted Season 4, is to ensure that it doesn't have to cede the spotlight quite as much.

At the very least, PBS doesn't believe spoilers hurt the show. "I know there is a perception that the spoilers are floating around, but it doesn't seem to affect the numbers," said Kerger.

"Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton reiterated that a September or October premiere would mean greater challenges for the Crawleys, and noted: "We're well aware it airs months before in England and the world is shrinking. The pirating, the spoilers, are not affecting the audience, though it's hard to prove a negative."

"Maybe there will start to be spoiler restraint," she mused.

No decision has been made as to when Season 4 will be aired, though Kerger noted that the network had experimented with running U.K. miniseries "Call the Midwife" very close to its British airing, and "it didn't do so well."

The reason for the U.K./U.S. divide in the first place is that "Masterpiece" works through co-productions with production companies, rather than producing its programming in-house, which makes such questions moot. Citing a precedent, Kerger noted that original productions based on Tony Hillerman's mysteries had been expensive: "It's something that interests me, but it's not something we are actively working on."

Eaton notes that the success of "Downton" has opened the network up to more potential producing partners, at home and abroad. "Any time you have a hit, your phone starts ringing more often, and your email starts pinging more often."

What, besides "Downton," might do particularly well for PBS? (Asked how long she hoped "Downton" would run, Eaton said it was largely up to creator Julian Fellowes but noted, "Forever would not be too long.") Kerger noted the shift of History away from history, strictly defined (the network aired its first scripted miniseries last year) and the travails of arts channel Ovation: "There's a whole area for us that's wide open."

That includes increasing the amount of scripted drama, including an upcoming miniseries starring Jeremy Piven as a London department store magnate, "Mr Selfridge." In the U.K., it's already about halfway through its run.

Daniel D'Addario

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Downton Abbey Jeremy Piven Lady Sybil Masterpiece Mr Selfridge Paula Kerger Pbs