PBS Chief on 'Downton Abbey' Delay: If It's Not Broke, Don't Fix It

Again addressing the smash hit airing stateside several months after its U.K. premiere, Paula Kerger says it has been beneficial to ratings -- while admitting she's less certain about imports "Sherlock" and "Call the Midwife" -- and talks about moving into American originals.
"Downton Abbey" and Paula Kerger

As Downton Abbey continues to grow its U.S. audience, the British drama's earlier U.K. air dates continue to be a point of debate for its rabid fan base and its American broadcaster. But PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told reporters at Tuesday's Television Critics Association press tour that the current model of airing Julian Fellowes' Emmy darling on a three-month delay will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

The upcoming fourth season of Downton Abbey, which launches on the U.K.'s ITV in September, won't bow on PBS until Jan. 5 of next year.

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"We have looked at this whole issue of spoilers and thought about how to best steward the broadcast," said Kerger. "We look carefully at the [competition] in the fall schedule with that in mind. We look at how we get promotion and buzz about it -- and that word of mouth has actually benefited us. We don't want to mess with that if it's working so well."

PBS' Downton Abbey model, which keeps it away from launching alongside fall's broadcast season kick-off, is not something Kerger was quick to note works for every scripted import airing as part of drama flagship Masterpiece Classic.

"This is not a hard and fast rule," added Kerger. "With Call the Midwife, we did air a December episode a couple days after the U.K., and it didn't work out as well. We'll look at each program differently."

One series that the public broadcaster has not made any decisions on is BBC One serial Sherlock. Coming off of a long delay since its second outing -- the last episode aired in January 2012 -- the Benedict Cumberbatch starrer does not have a premiere date set.   

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"We haven't yet set the broadcast for Sherlock," said Kerger, noting that a months-long delay might not be the best. "We're looking very carefully. But that is a subject of great interest, obviously, like Downton, it has a very passionate fan base."

The Downton Abbey fan base was somewhat rocked with the recent season finale, which saw the departure of star Dan Stevens -- and the death of his character, Matthew Crawley. When asked if she felt the British TV industry's penchant for not locking actors in for multi-season contracts was a creative detriment -- Stevens opted out of his Downton role -- Kerger seemed to shrug it off.

"If anyone has any issue with it, please don't contact me. Contact Julian Fellowes," she said, laughing. "I still keep thinking about the fact that the last episode of Downton aired on Christmas Day in the U.K. To be honest, it is what it is. And in the case of Downton, it opens opportunities for the series itself to evolve, and that's not a bad thing. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about if the casting there would improve the series or not. It seems to all work out."

The latest episode of Downton Abbey fetched 8.2 million viewers on PBS, making it the most-watched scripted effort in the broadcaster's history and the most-watched telecast since Ken Burns' The Civil War in 1990. And with so much recent success in scripted fare, Kerger also teased the possibility of American-based originals on the horizon.

"We are obviously very open to looking at American drama as well, and have been talking about putting a little money into some research and development," said Kerger. "We have limited dollars that we extend across all of the content we're developing, and drama is expensive. I would say if we go down this path, I would not want to be duplicating what everyone else is doing. We see an area that we don't think is being covered. I don't mean to be so mysterious, but that's what we're thinking of right now."