PBS Exploring Ways to Air 'Downton Abbey' Closer to U.K. Run

The third season of the British co-production has already wrapped in the U.K. But "the Downton audience is very loyal,” said PBS' Beth Hoppe, “They’re coming back no matter what."

PBS will bow the third season of Downton Abbey into the teeth of a social media maelstrom where spoilers are rampant and the show’s rabid fans regularly trade critiques via Twitter. But PBS executives are not concerned about the possible deleterious effect of airing two months after the show has premiered in the U.K.

“The Downton audience is very loyal,” PBS vp programming Beth Hoppe told The Hollywood Reporter. “They’re coming back no matter what, and they’re unlikely to be jumping on the Internet and trying to watch it illegally" like viewers of younger-skewing PBS fare including Sherlock and Call the Midwife, which are also U.K.-based co-productions.

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Downton wrapped its third season in November on Britain’s ITV1 with more than 10 million viewers an episode (factoring in delayed and on-demand viewing). The hotly anticipated seven-episode, third season bows Jan. 6 on PBS and will feature Shirley MacLaine (as Cora’s American mum) sparring with Maggie Smith’s dowager Countess of Grantham.

Downton has brought PBS awards (three Emmys out of 16 nominations) and viewers (season two doubled PBS’ average viewership, and the finale was watched by 5.4 million viewers for the public broadcaster’s biggest single telecast audience in nearly three years). And despite the potential spoiler effects of a globally connected media universe that has only gained steam since the second season of Downton aired a year ago, PBS executives are expecting another strong performance for their top-rated drama.

“The audiences for Downton have been terrific,” said John Wilson, senior vp and PBS’ chief programming executive. “So you can’t say that [airing months earlier in the U.K.] has knocked the legs out from underneath Downton Abbey. On the other hand, we can’t know how much more terrific it might have been had it aired closer to the U.K. premiere.”

Wilson said PBS is assessing the possibility of airing the fourth season of Downton closer to its U.K. premiere. Of course, there are issues with that as well, including the lag time it takes for episodes to be recut without commercial breaks for PBS and the risks of bowing the series in the noisy fall season, when broadcast and many cable networks are premiering a glut of new and returning shows.

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The success of Downton also has helped to fuel interest in period drama – here and among U.K. broadcasters -- and has sent A-list U.S. producers knocking on PBS’ door. Hoppe said the public broadcaster is talking to prominent American producers about possible series, though she would not tip her hand. And the success of History’s Hatfields & McCoys (nearly 14 million viewers on three consecutive nights) has further stoked development of historical dramas. It's a genre PBS – and a lot of other networks – is looking to do more with.

“There are producers who want to work with us because there’s a certain cachet to the drama that we have, and they know we want to get the history right,” said Hoppe.

Downton Abbey is the linchpin in PBS’ winter-spring schedule that also includes the second season of the hit BBC One drama Call the Midwife, which bows March 31.

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Other highlights include:

Makers: Women Who Make America, the story of how women including Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Ellen DeGeneres, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters and Katie Couric have helped shape America during the past 50 years (Feb. 26); POV: Girl Model, about a conflicted American model scout and the 13-year-old girl she plucks from a remote Siberian village (March 24); Masterpiece Classic: Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American founder of the London department store that revolutionized modern shopping (Sundays March 31-May 19); The Central Park Five, Ken Burns’ examination of the wrongful conviction of five young men (four black and one Hispanic) in the brutal 1989 rape of a Central Park jogger (April 16); Constitution USA, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, host Peter Sagal’s attempt to make real-world sense of the document politicians love to spout (May 14-21); and an American Masters installment on comic genius Mel Brooks (May 20).

E-mail: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com

Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie