Downton Abbey Premiere Boosts PBS' Digital Viewers to One Million Streams

Downton Abbey with Paula Kerger Inset 2- H 2013

Downton Abbey with Paula Kerger Inset 2- H 2013

Downton Abbey and Sherlock have arguably brought PBS buzz and zeitgeist status unheard of in the history of public broadcasting -- and with such attention comes an opportunity for innovation.

Reeling off a list of digital statistics to open PBS' portion of the Television Critics Association winter press tour Monday, president and CEO Paula Kerger noted that there were more than one million streams of the fourth-season premiere of Downton the week after its Jan. 5 episode (the television broadcast was watched by a record 10.2 million viewers). The fragmentation of the content landscape, said Kerger from the stage, is "a key driver of innovation at PBS and one that is critical in fulfilling our mission as Americans change how they access information."

To that end, there are more than 130 films from investigative series Frontline available on PBS Kids is among the most popular digital destinations for steaming video aimed at children, and the public broadcaster has forged expanded deals with Netflix and Amazon as exclusive SVOD destinations for The Bletchley Circle and Downton, respectively.

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In a tip of the cap to the current golden era of television drama, Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton quipped that "yes, technology is driving this, but I think there is also some kind of unholy alliance between [Maggie Smith's] Dowager Countess and [Bryan Cranston's] Walter White."

Social media has enabled a global conversation that Kerger believes has brought a mass of engaged viewers to the network's offering, even if PBS' most popular shows -- namely British co-productions Downton and Sherlock -- premiere in the U.S. after they've already aired in the U.K. Sunday's long-awaited third-season premiere of Sherlock pulled in close to 4 million viewers, up 25 percent compared to the second-season premiere, which aired more than two years ago as a result of star Benedict Cumberbatch's busy film schedule.

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"The whole idea of water-cooler conversation is shifting," said Kerger. "Being able to connect the content back to the stations but also around the PBS brand is going to be important for us and any other media organization," she added, "whether you're watching it on your tablet or Roku, you understand that it's coming from Masterpiece and public broadcasting."

Kerger also addressed the editorial firewall between PBS' fundraising and editorial arms that bubbled up in 2012 over Alex Gibney's documentary Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, which examined the dramatic economic chasm in America. 

PBS relies on large gifts from philanthropic entities backed by both ideologically liberal and conservative individuals (from Charles and David Koch to Bill and Melinda Gates). Gibney's documentary cast a critical eye on Koch Industries and New York PBS station WNET allowed the company to respond to the film in a highly critical televised statement.

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Without addressing the incident specifically, Kerger said that there is a "department within PBS itself that looks very carefully at the funders associated with any program."

"I am very confident that there is no risk of editorial influence," she added. "What I worry about more is perception."

That's because while deep-pocketed donors are important, the lion's share of PBS contributions comes from viewers making small donations to the public broadcaster's more than 300 local stations.  

"I think people pay attention and they hold us accountable," she added. "We believe very strongly in that trust that we've built with the American people. That's why for every reason in the world, including from an economic reason, that firewall has to remain sound, intact and impenetrable."