By ROB OWEN
PASADENA — “Downton Abbey” fans, PBS executives feel your pain.
They know it’s not optimal for spoilers to cross the pond when a new season of the period drama airs in the United Kingdom in September but doesn’t make it to America until January.
“This is a question of great debate, of whether to try to bring the broadcast of the two together,” said PBS President Paula Kerger. “It’s complicated for a lot of reasons.”
For starters, “Downton Abbey” airs on a commercial network in the U.K., so there are commercials. PBS edits the programs together to take out the commercial breaks and conform to public-television time slots.
Then there’s the timing: TV critics have long complained when PBS slots high-profile series against broadcast networks’ fall premieres in late September and early October.
“To put ‘Downton’ in the teeth of that I’m not sure serves anyone well,” Kerger said. “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.”
PBS has had excellent ratings success with starting its “Masterpiece: Classic” cycle in January, including “Downton,” which debuted its third season with 7.9 million viewers Jan. 6, quadrupling PBS’s average prime-time rating.
That said, PBS, following on strides made by BBC America, has been experimenting with American premieres that fall closer to when shows air in the U.K. PBS did air the “Call the Midwife” Christmas special last month just a few days after its premiere in England, and the ratings were not as high as PBS executives had hoped they would be. But the “Downton” ratings were better than expected.
“It’s been really interesting watching ‘Downton’ in its first week and a half. There are people that have read about some of the (plot) outcomes but are still watching it,” Kerger said. “I think a little bit about the Olympics. We knew what the outcomes were, but we were still watching them every night.”
When a TV critic suggested that viewers hate the delay on the Olympics, Kerger rejected the notion that PBS is somehow punishing viewers.
“At the end of the day — and maybe the Olympics is a bad example — 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,” she said. “And I don’t know whether that 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.”
Kerger said she and her programming team are evaluating reactions to this third season of “Downton” before making a final decision on when to premiere season four, although “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton suggested the show will once again return in January.
“We’re reviewing all the factors, but the ratings I think prove we didn’t lose audience, the ratings were tremendously improved from last season, so I think we are inclined to air next January,” Eaton said.
As for changes to the cast that will be coming in season four, Kerger said she’s not concerned about viewers losing interest in the show.
“With any series that runs over a period of some years, you see characters that come in and out,” she said. “In the case of ‘Downton,’ where you know that there are characters that have already left the series and you have the additions of new ones — and the most notable, of course, is Shirley MacLaine — it gives the writers an opportunity to explore new territory by having fresh faces and fresh ideas as they work through.”
Reports earlier this week suggested that Maggie Smith, who plays Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is back on board for the show’s fourth season, but on Tuesday Eaton said she could not confirm those reports.