As part of the PBS portion of the TCA Press Tour, President and CEO Paula Kerger took some time to discuss the hugely popular drama series Downton Abbey. During the interview, she spoke about why she thinks both Downton and Sherlock have experienced such tremendous success, whether the casting changes for Season 4 of Downton might affect the show’s popularity, the chances of synching up the timing of the U.S. run of Downton to the show’s run in Britain to avoid spoilers, and that they’re already at work on Season 4. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Question: Downton Abbey and Sherlock have been very successful, and they’re very good shows, but Masterpiece has aired a lot of very good shows over the years. Do you have any research or indication why these particular shows have really caught on, at this point in time?
PAULA KERGER: A lot of people ask me why I think both of those series have broken through, and I think there are probably a lot of reasons. The way that the dramas are constructed, with this long story arc that takes place over multiple episodes, people are really hungering for those longer-form experiences. I think the secret to both Downton and Sherlock is that they’re extraordinarily well written and well produced. Those Downton episodes feel like film. They are cast extraordinarily well. That’s also part of the success of Sherlock. It’s filmed in a very different style. It’s very engaging. But, I think that Benedict Cumberbatch, in particular, is extraordinarily appealing.
In the case of Downton there are stories that continue to be of interest to an American audience. The reason that anything pops, at any given time, is a little bit of alchemy. If anyone else in the media industry could figure it out, then everything would be a hit, or at least we would see more hits than we do. But, sometimes you have really great programs that somehow don’t find their audience. In this case, it’s a little bit of an alignment of the stars. But, I think the core of it is that they are beautiful productions with a lot of attention to detail, an amazing cast and really strong writing. Imagine Downton Abbey without Maggie Smith. The casting of it was probably the most brilliant piece.
KERGER: Look, with any series that runs over a period of some years, you see characters that come in and out. Characters do have an opportunity to do other things, and actors have the opportunity to do other things. I think it gives an opportunity to bring in other characters and develop other storylines. So, in the case of Downton, where there are characters that have already left the series, and you have the additions of new ones, most notably Shirley MacLaine, I think it gives the writers an opportunity to explore new territory by having fresh faces and fresh ideas. Julian Fellowes writes every word of the dialogue, and he just has such a brilliant overview of what he wants to do and is willing to try things that give an opportunity to develop out different stories that I think a wider range of characters would be perfectly suited for.
Have you considered syncing up the timing of the U.S. run of Downton Abbey with the show’s run in Britain, especially due to spoilers?
KERGER: This is a question of great debate, as to whether to try to bring the broadcast of the two together. It’s complicated, for a lot of reasons. One is that the version that airs in the UK airs with commercials, and we air ours without, so we actually edit the program together. We also look very carefully at where, in the broadcast schedule, it falls. You have encouraged us often that everyone puts their most competitive work on in the fall, and to put Downton in the teeth of that, I’m not sure serves anyone well. There’s also been an enormous generation of publicity and attention around the series that we benefit from, by having it in January. So, how we’re going to end up making the decision is actually based on what we think will be best for the viewers and will help serve them well.
We have experimented a little bit with trying to bring together these co-productions, to bring the U.S. premiere closer to the broadcast of the episodes in the UK. The best example is the Christmas episode for Call the Midwife, which aired here two days after it aired in the UK, but it actually didn’t do as well as we had hoped. Now, part of that may have been that it was the holiday time, and I wouldn’t want to equate Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey. But, we’re going to look very carefully at each and every circumstance and try to figure out whether we feel that it would serve the show and the audience better to try to put them closer together, or to separate them out.
It’s been really interesting watching Downton in its first week and a half. There are people that have read about some of the outcomes, but are still watching it. I want to make sure that we put Downton in a place where it has the opportunity to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible, so we’re watching the streaming numbers, which have been off the charts. A lot of people will try to catch up on episodes as binge viewing. They’ll watch a few episodes and then will join in to watch it in primetime. Downton has played into that very well. So, in addition to the syncing up of when we broadcast it, we’re looking at all these pieces and just trying to figure out how we can help people find what is a really great series and allow audiences to connect to it, in any way that they wish.
Will Shirley MacLaine be returning for Season 4?
KERGER: I’m not telling you anything about Season 4. Don’t trick me. They’re actually starting work on Season 4. I think she’s been great. I don’t know what people thought when it was announced that she was joining the cast, but I think she’s been terrific. She has fit into the series extraordinarily well, and she’s added yet another dimension to the show.