PBS Sets Premiere Date for Benedict Cumberbatch Drama 'Sherlock'

Public broadcasting execs anticipate "turbo-boosted" third season of the detective show, which will be paired with "Downton Abbey" beginning Sunday, Jan. 19.
Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE.
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch

PBS is doubling down on British drama, scheduling new seasons of its buzziest shows -- Downton Abbey and Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Sunday nights beginning in January.

It is a strategy PBS programming chief Beth Hoppe calls “affinity programming.” And because the public broadcaster had such an embarrassment of riches on the British drama front this season, they were able to stack their two most popular programs on the same night.

“To be able to have two things at the same time that are both incredibly buzzy is exciting for us,” says Hoppe, chief programming executive and general manager, PBS.

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Season three of Sherlock will bow Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. in the time slot after Abbey, which premieres eight new episodes from season four starting Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. Abbey helped boost PBS' ratings by 26 percent last season. And executives hope that Sherlock -- which will have been on a nearly two-year hiatus thanks to Cumberbatch's busy film schedule -- will return big now that the British actor has broken out as a global superstar.

“The Sherlock audience is a crazy loyal audience,” adds Hoppe. “We certainly expect that loyal viewership back. If it grows from there, it will be gravy.”

Sherlock -- which, like Downton, airs under PBS' Masterpiece banner -- is a co-production with the BBC. Early seasons of Sherlock currently are available on Netflix -- which has proved a useful tool for catch-up viewing. Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton predicts a “turbo-boosted” season thanks to Cumberbatch's recent film repertoire that has included The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave and Star Trek Into Darkness.

“Benedict is so much more in the public eye what with the Cumber-bitches, the Cumber-bunnies and the Cumber Collective,” laughs Eaton. “But he has been on many Masterpiece productions pre-Sherlock; Small Island, To the Ends of the Earth. So he is a working actor. He has been in theater and in television and I think it's wonderful that now he's breaking out into feature films.”

The BBC has yet to schedule the third season of the show. And while it could bow any time during the remainder of the year, there still will be a shorter gap between the U.S. run than there traditionally has been for airings of Downton. The fourth season of the ITV co-production bowed in September in Britain. And one particular storyline is currently causing some controversy across the pond – and spoilers in the U.S. But Hoppe notes that last season's Downton set new ratings records for PBS in spite of a delay that revealed a bombshell season-three finale for many viewers. 

“The success from season three really sent a message to us loud and clear,” noted Hoppe.

The third season of Downton was watched by an average of 11.5 million viewers an episode, a jump of more than 60 percent over season two.

“We are trying with Sherlock to line up them up [the U.K. and U.S. runs] more closely so there isn't such a wait for the rabid fans who we aren't sure would wait," she adds. "We had evidence that while there was some griping in the press, the Downton fans were OK [with the gap] and showed up for season three in a big way. So the time to build the buzz between the U.K. broadcast and our broadcast really worked for us.”

And Cumberbatch won't only be seen in Sherlock this season. He'll also appear in PBS' Stephen Hawking documentary Hawking, which bows Jan. 29. The actor and physicist have remained good friends since Cumberbatch played Hawking in a 2004 TV movie. 

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Other PBS winter-spring season highlights:

Chasing Shackleton -- Wednesdays, Jan. 8-22, 10 p.m. -- The three-part series follows a modern expedition that re-creates Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. A crew of five explorers led by adventurer, scientist and author Tim Jarvis in a replica of the original explorers’ lifeboat uses only the tools and supplies Shackleton’s team used. 

American Masters: Salinger-- Tuesday, Jan. 21, 9 p.m. -- Director Shane Salerno's film marks Masters' 200th episode and features interviews with 150 subjects, including J.D. Salinger’s friends, colleagues and members of his inner circle who never before have spoken on the record, as well as film footage, photographs and other material that has never been seen. 

Independent Lens: At Berkeley – Monday, Jan. 13, 10 p.m. -- Documentarian Frederick Wiseman examines the University of California at Berkeley, the oldest and most prestigious member of a ten-campus state public education system and one of the finest research and teaching facilities in the world.

Super Skyscrapers  -- Wednesdays, Feb. 5-26, 10 p.m. -- The four-part series follows the creation of four extraordinary buildings, showcasing how they will revolutionize the way we live, work and protect ourselves from potential threats.  

American Experience: The Amish: Shunned -- Tuesday, Feb. 4, 8 p.m. -- The two-hour documentary follows seven former members of the Amish community as they reflect on decisions to leave one of the most tightly knit communities in the U.S. Estranged from family, the ex-Amish find themselves struggling to make their way in modern America. Interwoven through the stories are voices of Amish men and women who remain staunchly loyal to their traditions and faith. They explain the importance of obedience, the strong ties that bind their communities together and the pain they endure when a loved one falls away.

Call the Midwife -- Sundays, March 30-May 18, 8 p.m. -- The third season of the drama opens in 1959. The winds of change are sweeping through the country and the residents of Nonnatus House face some momentous changes of their own.

Masterpiece Classic: Mr. Selfridge -- Sundays, March 30-May 18, 9 p.m. -- Season two of the series starring Jeremy Piven as the flamboyant American entrepreneur who founded London’s famous Selfridge’s department store picks up in 1914, as the store celebrates its fifth anniversary. 

Story of the Jews -- Tuesdays, March 25 and April 1, 8 p.m. -- The five-part series follows historian, author and critic Simon Schama as he explores the Jewish experience from ancient times to the present day.