“Downton Abbey” is coming back in January — and the chief of PBS is warming up by hurling a few crumpets at TV rivals.
Season 5 of the British drawing-room drama will premiere in America on Jan. 4, the public broadcaster announced Tuesday at the TV press tour in Beverly Hills.
PBS President and Chief Executive Paula Kerger defended, as she has in the past, the decision to run “Downton” months after it has aired in Britain, which has meant that many U.S. fans uncover spoilers online before getting a chance to watch the episodes. This has led to much criticism of PBS, but Kerger remains undaunted.
“January works well,” Kerger said, because the weather has turned cold across much of the country and people have more time to watch. The fact that “Downton’s” audience grew by 16% for the most recent season, she added, verified the strategy.
Meanwhile, the usually circumspect Kerger took a few whacks at cable networks, which she says have abandoned their original mission and are chasing reality hits.
“Most people forget A&E once stood for ‘Arts & Entertainment,’” said Kerger. A&E once aired fine-arts performances but lately has become an outlet for reality fare such as “Duck Dynasty.”
As for History, the onetime home of endless World War II documentaries now has a “broader portfolio and a different definition of history, I guess,” Kerger cracked. Among History’s top shows is “Pawn Stars,” set in a family-run Las Vegas pawn shop.
“We’re not necessarily in the same business,” Kerger said, referring to the public broadcaster’s programming lineup, which beyond “Downton” also includes the British hit “Sherlock” as well as the customary documentaries and educational programming.
Of course, nonprofit PBS member stations receive viewer and governmental support as well as corporate sponsorships, so their imperatives are much different than those of cable outlets.
When it comes to quality arts and educational programming, she added, “We see ourselves as really standing alone in that space.”
In addition to the “Downton” premiere news, Kerger came to the press tour with announcements for several new shows, including a film biography of Walt Disney that will air on “American Experience” in the fall of 2015. Also coming: “The Brain With Dr. David Eagleman,” six one-hour episodes exploring neuroscience.
PBS also revealed that member stations will stream “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” the next offering from documentarian Ken Burns, starting the day after its premiere in September. And another British drama, “Call the Midwife,” will be coming back for Season 4.
One critic disputed Kerger’s claims for PBS’ distinctiveness as a programmer by alluding to the program “Sex in the Wild” — which, despite the racy title, is in fact a nature program hosted by two animal biologists.
“Have you seen that series?” Kerger asked from the podium.
“I have not,” the critic admitted. “I’m stockpiling it,” he added as laughter rippled through the ballroom.
Kerger conceded the title was a come-on. In other words, PBS and its crasser network cousins still have to get people to tune in, no matter what they see when they get there.
“We have to work a little harder to get people to at least sample the first few minutes and hook them in,” Kerger said.