'Downton Abbey' returns Jan. 5; PBS shrugs off spoiler problem

'Downton Abbey' returns Jan. 5; PBS shrugs off spoiler problem
Paula Kerger, chief executive of PBS, has defended her handling of the airdates for "Downton Abbey." (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

PBS wants "Downton Abbey" fans to know it's sorry about all those spoilers. But not sorry enough to actually move up the show's airdates.

The public broadcasting network revealed Tuesday that season 4 of the smash British period drama will return on Jan. 5, thus turning aside the entreaties of American fans upset that they can't see episodes until months after they've aired in Britain (British viewers will see season 4 this fall). By which point, of course, juicy plot details have spilled all over the Internet. Last year, for example, many stateside viewers found out online that producers killed off Dan Stevens' popular character for the Season 3 finale, weeks before the season premiere had even aired in the States.


"We don't want to disappoint the people that really love 'Downton' and want to see it back,"
PBS President and Chief Executive Paula Kerger told reporters Tuesday at the TCA press tour in Beverly Hills.

But "The fact that people talk about it and that that word of mouth sort of travels once it premieres in the U.K. has actually benefited us," Kerger explained.

That's one reason the ratings are so high, Kerger believes. Last season, "Downton Abbey" became PBS' most-watched drama ever, with an average of 11.5 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.

"It's the second-highest rating of anything" on PBS since Ken Burns' "The Civil War" documentary miniseries, Kerger said. "So you kind of don't want to mess with that if it's working so well."

Kerger recognizes that by delaying a show for months, she's bucking industry trends toward on-demand distribution and binge viewing. When Netflix released its Emmy-nominated "House of Cards" in February, it made all 13 episodes available simultaneously.

But PBS believes that "Downton Abbey" is different -- the kind of program for which fans organize viewing parties and play dress-up.

"It's one of those handful of programs, I think, that are on the air still that people do sort of want to have a collective experience about," Kerger said.

What do you think of "Downton Abbey" and PBS' handling of its premiere dates?


Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT