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“Downton” Huge Hit for WNED and PBS


Apparently my romance with Lady Mary, Lady Sybil and the other rich Brits on PBS’ “Downton Abbey” over the holidays isn’t unique in Western New York.

The first two Sunday night episodes of season three are getting ratings on WNED-TV, the local PBS affiliate, in line with prime time shows on the major broadcast networks on the night.

The season opener on Jan. 6 saw a 50 percent bump from the season premiere of season two, beat ABC’s “Revenge” on Channel 7 and was in a virtual tie with CBS’ “The Good Wife” on Channel 4 and NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” on Channel 2.

The second “Downton” episode on Jan. 13 maintained almost all of the premiere episode audience and beat “Revenge” but fell behind “The Golden Globes” on Channel 2 and “The Good Wife.”

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery of "Downton"

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery of “Downton”

These are heady numbers for PBS and WNED and they come despite the fact there have been a lot of spoilers out there about season three happenings since the Masterpiece Classic series already has been carried in England.

During a press conference in Pasadena, Calif., earlier this week, PBS President Paula Kerger noted the series premiere attracted 7.9 million viewers, quadrupled the average PBS prime time ratings and exceeded the second season premiere by nearly 100 percent.

“In other words, it’s a smash hit,” said Kerger. “We don’t see numbers like that in television that often and certainly not in public television … It was just ‑‑ it was a beautiful thing.”

She believes writing and production elements are largely responsible for the soap opera’s success.

“Those ‘Downton’ pieces feel like film,” said Kerger. “They are cast extraordinarily well… I think that the reason that anything pops at any given time is a little bit of alchemy.  I think 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 I believe that sometimes you have really great programs that somehow don’t find their audience, so I think in this case it’s a little bit of an alignment of the stars.  But I think the core of it is that beautiful production, a lot of attention to detail, an amazing cast, and really strong writing.

“I mean, imagine ‘Downton Abbey’ without Maggie Smith, you know.  I mean, it’s just ‑‑ again, I think the casting of it was probably the most brilliant piece.”

Of course, some viewers want to imagine a “Downton” that runs simultaneously in the States and Britain so spoilers won’t be an issue.

“This is a question of great debate of whether to try to bring the broadcast of the two together,” said Kerger. “It’s complicated for a lot of reasons.  One is, as you know, 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 an enormous ‑‑ there’s 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.”

She added that history hasn’t been that kind to PBS when it tries to air British productions in the States closer to the time they are carried in the UK.

“It’s been really interesting watching ‘Downton’ in its first week and a half,” she added. “There are people that have read about some of the outcomes but are still watching it.  I think a little bit about the Olympics.  We knew what the outcomes were, but we were still watching them every night.  And again, I don’t mean to draw a comparison between the Olympics and “Downton” in terms of viewership and patterns, but I think that ‑‑ I want to make sure that we put “Downton” in a place that has ‑‑ it has the opportunity to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible.”

One critic scoffed at the Olympics reference, noting that Americans were “annoyed” by NBC’s carrying events on delay when the rest of the world knew the results because they watched live.

“Do you feel like, to some degree, viewers are being punished?” he asked.

“No, we’re not punishing our viewers,” replied Kerger. “I do think that, again, if I was standing up here today saying, ‘Look, this is what we’re going to do, and we’re sticking with it’ and so forth — we’re just looking at it very carefully.  We talk to a lot of people, and we talk to a lot of people, again because we have stations in communities, and we’re talking to people that are watching “Downton.”

“I think that at the end of the day ‑‑ and maybe the Olympics is a bad example – but at the end of the day, I want to make sure that we’re putting the series in a place where the most people can find it and that people will have an opportunity to enjoy it and be part of a larger experience.  And I don’t know whether that means jamming it in the fall at the same time that every other broadcaster is running their stuff really serves the series or, frankly, the viewers well.”

It is hard to see PBS changing its strategy since “Downton” is a gold medal winner right where it is now.


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