Downton Abbey’s fifth season will debut on January 4, PBS chief Paula Kerger said this morning. She boasted the fourth season was up 16% year over year — among the reasons PBS will not consider an airdate that more closely coincides with the British play-pattern — and that the Masterpiece franchise within which Downton Abbey airs is up 24%. “We’re extremely proud of this growth and continue to focus on Sunday night drama,” she told TV critics at TCA Summer TV Press Tour 2014.
As for Sherlock, Kerger said PBS did not yet have word as to when it would be ready for air. “Because it’s coming from our partners in the UK, we have to wait to know when it will be finished,” Kerger said. “But, whenever it comes we’ll put it in a wonderful place and we know the next season is going to be terrific,” she added.
Likewise, Kerger said she had no airdate for the return of Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven. That franchise’s renewal for a third season was announced by its British producer in February, saying only that it would air in 2015.
Kerger made a slew of programming announcements to gobble up time during her executive Q&A at the tour, including a plan to offer streaming of the entire 14 hours of Ken Burns’ new documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History the morning after the premiere of the first of its seven two-hour episodes. (As has been the case with previous Burns documentaries for PBS, The Roosevelts will air on seven consecutive nights.)
One TV critic and obvious Downton obsessive wondered why PBS wasn’t making the entire fifth season of the period drama available in the same manner. Kerger explained with the patience of a saint that there are no spoilers on the Roosevelt documentary. “I think you are going to know what happens to the Roosevelts,” she said, eliciting giggles among Press Tour-weary critics. “It’s surprising to me, though [Downton] is available in lots of different places, that people still are organizing on Sunday nights so they can be watching the program at the same time as their friends. There’s a lot to be said for the collective viewing experience… I don’t think that’s related to every show — but those that capture public attention, like Downton, and live in social media.”
When last she met with TV critics at a TCA confab, Kerger announced PBS will never, ever air Downton Abbey seasons closer to its UK run, citing its Season 4 debut audience – 10.2 million viewers, which was a 22% jump compared to the Season 3 opener (7.9 million), which itself had been a leap from the series Season 2 launch crowd of 4.2 mil. Downton is PBS’ highest-rated drama ever. ”It’s become a bit of tradition after the holidays to come together to watch Downton,” Kerger said happily back then. “The audience build over the years…argues to keep the January time frame,” she said. And, of course, a fall launch coinciding with the UK’s Downton season would put it in the teeth of the commercial broadcast network’s fall-season rollout, which, she noted, TV critics in the room had criticized PBS for doing in the past. Not to mention that the series’ UK broadcaster determines its debut date not terribly long before it actually happens — no weeks and weeks of promotions, as is the norm in the U.S.
Sherlock, which did get moved so as to get it launched each season closer to its UK start, was a simpler matter, what with it being only three episodes per season. Sherlock lacks Downton’s time-honored post-holiday viewing tradition. “With Sherlock we heard form a lot of fans anxious to have it a little closer to the UK broadcast,” she said. PBS, she insisted, does not “freeze our decisions in amber,” adding, “we thought we would give this a try.”