“Imagine a broadcast net that has seen an increase of 5% in viewership since last year,” said Paula Kerger, CEO of PBS. “In a world where audiences seem to be shrinking…We saw a 25% increase on Sunday nights.”
Some may ascribe such an increase in ratings to powerhouse period drama “Downton Abbey,” which is entering into its fourth season on PBS. But Kerger quickly stated that anyone who assumes PBS’s viewership upticks are due solely to “Downton” “obviously hasn’t done their math.”
“Eight hours of programming isn’t going to change our ratings for the entire year,” Kerger told journos at the PBS TCA exec session. “Night to night, our numbers are up.”
When it comes to its strong lineup of Sunday night dramas, though, PBS is in an interesting position, especially with “Downton.” The Julian Fellowes drama bows months before its PBS debut on the U.K.’s ITV, leaving open the door for serious spoilers for Stateside auds. (In the U.K., “Downton’s” fourth run is expected to kick off in September, while PBS viewers will have to wait until Jan. 5 for the premiere.)
Having “Downton” viewers around the world be at different points in the series’ run, however, is not unlike the binge-viewing phenomenon, per Kerger.
“Whenever I speak in public, I never talk about the end of season three of ‘Downton Abbey,’ because there are a significant number of people who haven’t seen it,” Kerger explained. Thus, even in the U.S., there are people well behind their fellow American “Downton” viewers because they’re playing catch up on the series. Spoilers are not limited to auds on different sides of the Pond.
“It’s fascinating to see how TV consumption has shifted,” Kerger continued. “…As we have looked at this issue of spoilers and how to best steward the property and think about the viewership, we’ve considered a number of factors with the scheduling: first, I know we often put our most competitive work against the network premieres. We look at the fall with that in mind. Second, we look at how we can get buzz around the series…People talk about [‘Downton’] once it premieres in the U.K., and that has actually benefited us…We don’t want to mess with that if it’s working so well [in terms of ratings for PBS].”
Scheduling premiere dates for acquired dramas remains a fluid process at PBS, though.
“For ‘Call the Midwife,’ we did air the show really only a couple days after it aired in the U.K., and it didn’t work out quite as well,” Kerger noted. “We’ll continue to look at each program as it comes up. Does it make sense to bring it close to the [initial] broadcast window? Or schedule it as at a separate point in time?”
Kerger herself has found joy in the cult-like following of “Downton Abbey,” relishing in the spoof Twitter handles and even attended some station-organized viewing parties.
“The attire for one party said ‘Downton Abbey’ or black tie. My friend and I were the only ones not wearing ‘Downton’ attire!…There’s a very animated fan base that has organized around the show.”
With so much success surrounding acquired Brit dramas, one journo asked if PBS would delve into producing original, American dramas for the net.
Kerger said she’s “very open” to that option, and that PBS is even “looking to put money into research and development” for that genre of content.
“The challenge is that we have limited dollars we extend across all the content we’re developing, and drama is expensive, there’s no question about it,” Kerger stated. “I would say if we do go down this path, I wouldn’t want to be duplicating what everyone else is doing.” The chief then coyly said she sees “an area that isn’t being covered” in American drama, but will keep her observation under wraps for now as ideas percolate at PBS.