PASADENA, CA. – After 10 days of network and TV panels at the Television Critics Association press tour, Monday (January 14) marked the beginning of PBS’ presentation time, with PBS President Paula Kerger addressing big news like the “Downton Abbey” premiere schedule and the fall controversy involving departed “Sesame Street” star Kevin Clash.
Remarkably, it took nearly half the executive session before Kerger was asked her first question about the ongoing decision to launch “Downton Abbey” in the United States months after its airings on ITV in the UK. The extended delay led to wide proliferation of spoilers and some consternation amongst fans who didn’t want to resort to torrenting and other forms of illegal viewership. However, the extended delay didn’t prevent “Downton Abbey” from drawing 7.9 million viewers for its first airing.
“I wouldn”t say we had an office pool, but… we did have some thoughts about what kind of audience it would bring in,” Kerger said. “And when we realized that it had attracted… 7.9 million viewers, I mean, 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. And it will be interesting to see now how it carries through through the rest of the series. And then once you start to cume up the [Live]+7 Nielsen numbers and everything, I think the number of people that will have found ‘Downton Abbey’ is going to be really extraordinary.”
Has PBS given any thought, though, to allowing American audiences to experience “Downton Abbey” at the same time as much of the rest of the world?
“This is a question of great debate of whether to try to bring the broadcast of the two together,” Kerger said. “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.”
Kerger continued, “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 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. And, you know, so we”re watching the streaming numbers, which have been off the charts. We”re watching how people are accessing content for a project like I was just talking to someone last week about the fact that for a series like ‘Downton,’ as I know is the case with other series like ‘Homeland,’ people are finding it on television, but they”re also finding it in streaming form. And a lot of people will try to catch up on episodes, and they”ll watch I think of it as binge viewing. They”ll watch a few episodes and then will join in to watching it in primetime, because I think there is something about this sort of collective viewing experience. You can certainly see it in all the people that are hosting sort of social media viewing parties and talking to each other. People like to feel that they”re participating in something all together. And ‘Downton’ has played into that very well. So in addition to sort of the syncing up of when we broadcast it, we”re sort of looking at all these pieces and just trying to figure out how we can help people find what is a really great series and connect to it in any way that they wish.”
I grabbed the mic here and tried to suggest that while millions of people did, indeed, watch the Olympics despite knowing the results, many of us were annoyed by that. I expressed some concerns that viewers — I know that I, personally, was spoiled on major plot-points just by looking up the show’s British ratings — were being punished for being true to PBS.
“No, we”re not punishing our viewers,” Kerger laughed.
She noted, “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.”
I’m not sure if those answers will satisfy frustrated American fans, but that’s the current lay of the land.
After the long wait to the first “Downton Abbey” scheduling question, Kerger made it even deeper into the conference before being asked about Kevin Clash’s departure from “Sesame Street” amidst is still evolving sex scandal.
The reporter asked how the Clash situation has impacted “Sesame Street” and the use of Elmo as the face of PBS Kids.
“[W]hat the folks at ‘Sesame’ did was stay in contact with us immediately when this began to develop, and I think they did an extraordinary job at not only working and to make sure that good decisions were made, but also that people understood that the character itself, character of Elmo, is larger than any individual,” she said. “And I think that they did a good job of assuring people that that was the case. I have not seen negative impact, certainly to PBS Kids. And Elmo continues on the air, and I haven”t seen any significant impact to that as well. But I think, you know, time will tell. And we”ll, obviously, watch it very carefully.”
Kerger repeated the theme of Elmo being bigger than any individual — exactly the opposite point from the one made in the documentary “Being Elmo,” which aired on PBS — when asked if Sesame Workshop is going to officially name a replacement for Clash when it comes to Elmo.
“You know, for some of the characters, there actually are multiple puppeteers,” she said. “And in fact, there had been some effort to bring in additional help for Elmo. So I think that I don”t know they”ll actually make an announcement of a new puppeteer, but they”ve been very clear that the character of Elmo is in fact larger than any individual puppeteer. And as you know, Jim Henson himself was Kermit. You know, I mean, I think that they have had experience in bringing in additional puppeteers to work with the various characters.”