TCA: PBS Touts Ratings Gains, Defends ‘Downton’ Delay

TV's one-time Dowager Countess appears to relish being the belle of the ball.

Paula Kerger PBS TCA

Having long been viewed as TV’s version of the Dowager Countess, PBS appears to relish being the belle of the ball.

Speaking at the TV Critics Assn. tour, PBS President-CEO Paula Kerger touted the pubcaster’s overall ratings gains Monday, stressing they couldn’t be attributed solely to “Downton Abbey,” a rare ratings blockbuster for public television. Kerger also said the network opted to run “Sherlock” — the series of Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Benedict Cumberbatch — closer to its airing in the U.K. seeking to satisfy fans who were anxious to see it.

Kerger said PBS had looked at various considerations about moving “Downton Abbey” closer to its airing in the U.K., but that viewers had become accustomed to tuning in for the show in January. She added that a fall premiere would put the show in the teeth of the major networks’ new-series introductions, although there are virtually as many of those now in January — marking the midseason push — as September.

Although the date for season five has yet to be set, Kerger said it “would be very hard for me to imagine” moving the period costume drama, despite concerns about potential viewers downloading the show prior to its U.S. return.

Historically, PBS has often struggled to attract the kind of mass audience — particularly with younger adults — that “Downton” has drawn, while ably serving two poles of the demographic spectrum who are under-served in the broadcast space: Older viewers, who are not a priority to advertisers; and young children, where most of the competition is limited to dedicated cable channels.

In addition to the June return of “Last Tango in Halifax,” a “Masterpiece” romance starring Derek Jacobi, PBS will feature the actor paired with another knighted performer, Ian McKellen, in “Vicious,” a rare half-hour sitcom for the network. Both programs will begin their runs on June 29.

Asked about the contribution of the popular “Masterpiece” dramas to PBS’ bottom line — namely, securing viewer support and funding — Kerger said they’re helpful, but added, “People are very interested in supporting their stations because of the arts,” citing the shrinking exposure of genuine arts coverage on television.

“No one remembers what A&E once stood for,” she said, also citing support tied to children’s programming and news/documentaries, such as “Frontline.”

Kerger said she would “love to do some drama out of the United States” — another longtime but seldom realized goal for public TV — saying the challenge remains funding. PBS’ drama lineup will include second seasons of “Mr. Selfridge,” starring Jeremy Piven, and “The Bletchley Circle” beginning in March and April, respectively.

McKellen and Jacobi both appeared via satellite in support of “Vicious,” an ITV series in which they play a gay couple that’s been together for nearly 50 years. Asked about the general lack of such projects featuring older stars in the U.S., Jacobi quipped that the willingness in the U.K. to construct shows around septuagenarians is “certainly very good for us and our bank balances.”

At one point, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was virtually alone in consistently producing fare that garnered sizable ratings for PBS, and the network made clear it intends to continue that relationship. On Monday, PBS announced a new multipart Burns project, “Country Music,” targeted for 2018, joining several other documentaries in the pipeline.