This morning James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly reported some great news for fans of British-import drama: PBS is airing the new seasons of Downton Abbey and Sherlock back-to-back on Sunday nights starting in January. But the news is also a sign that perhaps the network's British TV invasion hasn't been as widespread as we'd all like to believe.
The long-awaited third season of Sherlock will premiere on January 19, alongside Downton, which begins its fourth-season run January 5. Sherlock only has three episodes per season, whereas Downton's run is more akin to cable programming here in the states. "Given the way Sunday nights have been seriously weakening in the ratings for broadcast entertainment shows this fall, the power-pairing of hugely anticipated Downton season 4 and Sherlock season 3 could make PBS a significant Sunday night player come January," Hibberd writes. But what comes after Downton and Sherlock for the network?
Currently, PBS is enjoying something of a golden age. At the Television Critics' Association press tour in August, Tim Molloy reported that, even though the network has far fewer viewers overall than the other networks, PBS is " the only broadcast network that is steady in the key 18-49 demographic, up in total viewers and up dramatically in viewers 18-34." Downton isn't the only factor—the network is so much more than scripted programming—but it's a big one, and it's also been consistently making waves when it comes to Emmy recognition, even as the show has gotten decreased in quality. Sherlock, meanwhile, has a huge cult following, even if it perhaps hasn't matched Downton in ratings. The show enjoys a robust life on Netflix, and may be due for a bump now that Cumberbatch is a bona fide Hollywood star. (People don't care about The Fifth Estate bombing, they care about Star Trek.) These are both shows that, well, defy PBS stereotypes, even as they conform to them. Yes, they are classy and British, but they are also (depending on how you feel about Downton these days) exciting — and popular. It makes one wonder why PBS wouldn't want to spread the wealth around their schedule. Airing them at the same time, however, will put the U.S. broadcast of Sherlock close to the British run.
Neither Downton and Sherlock are going away that quickly, both in all likelihood have at least one more season in to go. But ends might be in sight. Sherlock's leads, Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, are now starring in major motion pictures and may not want to return to the small screen, and Downton has suffered losses as actors have jumped ship for bigger things. And while other PBS imports have had solid ratings, they haven't inspired the same sort of fervor as Downton and Sherlock. The Jeremy Piven-starring Mr. Selfridge had an average of four million viewers for each episode and got a second season, but didn't really capture the hearts of critics. Call the Midwife, though doing solidly for PBS, hasn't been nearly as big a hit here as it has in the UK.
So while PBS may have one of the most enticing Sunday night lineups in January, the network may want to find another Downton-sized hit.