PBS at TCA: Desperately hoping its audience doesn’t discover torrents since 2009

PBS at TCA: Desperately hoping its audience doesn’t discover torrents since 2009

Another Television Critics Association press tour, another PBS executive session with Paula Kerger, another session dominated by questions of why the network doesn’t air Downton Abbey and Sherlock closer to the programs’ debut in the United Kingdom. At this point, Kerger should almost just schedule a separate session every press tour to discuss these issues in particular, that there might be time to discuss some of the channel’s other programming in her actual executive sessions. And PBS’ delays of broadcast extend beyond just their two biggest hits. The same questions affect some of their more modest performers, like The Bletchley Circle and Call The Midwife (both of which will return in the spring). But both Downton and Sherlock are so widely seen—and so many reporters have comments sections full of viewers who’ve seen both series in their entirety already—that the question comes up again and again and again.

To be fair to PBS, it did move Sherlock up to a point where it was debuting two-and-a-half weeks after the United Kingdom debut. (Season two debuted months after the British airing.) But it’s not as if 18 days is any different from five months in the eyes of ravenous Sherlock fans, who merrily went ahead and grabbed the show off torrents, streams, and other online options. Like HBO, PBS is betting on just enough people being lazy enough to wait for something to air on regular television to keep its ratings floating along. Unlike HBO, PBS has to deal with the fact that the programs it airs actually debut in another country before they debut here. To we modern creatures of the Internet, this seems like a particularly self-defeating business decision. But is it?

In the case of Downton, not really. The show’s ratings increase with every season, and even if there are plenty of people who are watching the show via illicit means, it’s not really hurting the mothership in any particular way. Indeed, in the week after the debut of the latest season of Downton, the premiere was streamed over a million times on PBS’ streaming player. Even the people who are technologically savvy enough to conceivably find the program via other means (or at least have a child or grandchild who could hook them up) seem to be largely waiting for the program to arrive via conventional channels. Kerger spoke of this as an extension of a kind of nostalgia for the past ways of watching television, for an era when people had to wait for a series to debut at a certain time and watch it together. She mentioned Downton viewing parties and people who rearrange their schedules around the program, and she also said that to air the program at the same time as the U.K. would mean bumping up against the fall premieres on the broadcast networks. At this point, Kerger argues, the Downton audience—or at least a large enough chunk of it to drive the biggest ratings in PBS’ history—is conditioned to expect the show in January, shortly after the holidays.

That’s all well and good, but Sherlock remains an open question. Kerger openly admits that Sherlock has been pushed back largely because its audience is younger and more tech-savvy and, thus, better able to track down the episodes when they debut. Even though putting the show on the same night as Downton is essentially the network burning off its two biggest hits at the same time (something nearly every other channel would frown at), it’s something that’s largely essential so PBS doesn’t lose all of its audience to those willing to watch the BBC broadcasts via whatever means they can find. There’s also the open question of whether PBS could even convince the BBC to let it air the programs on the same day as the U.K. Sure, Doctor Who is day and date in the U.S., but BBC America and BBC are owned by the same media conglomerate. One presumes that any of these rights issues could be ironed out quickly enough, but PBS may have other battles to fight.

The irony of all of this is that PBS is a pretty good network in terms of its online availability. The network proudly boasts of how many kids watching online videos are watching PBS Kids videos (a number that tops 40 percent), and its streaming library is very good. It’s also seeing more and more people watching it on their Apple TVs and Rokus and the like, and it has lucrative deals with Netflix and Amazon to highlight prior seasons of its streaming programming. And, arguably, because PBS is driven so thoroughly by “viewers like you,” people who become members of their local stations, it should be even more responsive to wishes to have that programming available as soon as possible. And yet all of that British TV gets aired, often with months or even years between its debut there and its debut here. (For instance, the Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen sitcom Vicious will make its debut here in June, when it aired in the U.K. last year.)

And, of course, the simple answer here is that, ultimately, not that many people consume this sort of content like we think they do because people who read sites like this are a self-selecting audience that knows how to stay on top of these sorts of things. The vast majority of people are like, say, my parents, who are super excited for the season premiere of Sherlock but don’t have the foggiest idea how to get it over torrent and also don’t particularly care. (They’re also the people who didn’t really care about the Olympics not airing live back in 2012 and were content to wait for the primetime broadcast while finding it easy to avoid spoilers because they just didn’t spend that much time online.) They watched Sherlock last night when it made its U.S. debut, and if they didn’t, they have it on their DVR or will watch it on the PBS site in the next few days. That might pose a long-term problem for PBS—in that it will need to figure out a way to lure in younger viewers and potential future members—but for now, it’s prompting the biggest successes in the network’s history.

Some other PBS thoughts:

  • Another British series debuting here months after it aired in the U.K.: The second season of Last Tango In Halifax will make its U.S. debut on June 29, along with Vicious.
  • PBS officially announced the long-rumored Ken Burns documentary on the history of country music, which one presumes will be a counterpart to the documentarian’s previous Jazz. It will air in 2018, after the debuts of his other films The Address, The Roosevelts, Jackie Robinson, and Vietnam. (That’s, yes, one film per year through 2018.) Kerger said in response to a question that Burns and the network have a long-standing plan that allows for a certain amount of flexibility—The Address came together fairly quickly by his standards—but has several tentpoles and major projects in place for the years to come. We can only assume he’s got films planned through 2035 or something similar.
  • National Geographic Television and PBS are producing a new major nature miniseries Earth—A New Wild, which will debut in the spring of 2015, which is, actually, only a little over a year away. That’s kinda weird, huh?
  • In terms of much of PBS’ other programming—American Experience, American Masters, Nova, etc.—the general impression was steady as she goes. Things at the network seem to be moving along largely in the same fashion as per usual.
  • We’ll have more from PBS throughout the day, including Myles McNutt’s report on today’s Sherlock panel. 

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