Why does Downton Abbey air in January in the US?

PBS has confirmed it’s sticking to its normal January air date in 2015. Why must law-abiding US fans wait?

Series 5, or “season 5”, of Downton Abbey is more or less in the can and ready to premiere on ITV in the UK this autumn – but its US broadcaster PBS has confirmed that once again, American fans will have to wait until after the holiday season to see it.


The fifth instalment of the Crawley family saga starts in the States on 4 January, after British viewers have seen the whole run and the Christmas special to boot.

Don’t American viewers simply watch the show online as soon as it’s broadcast in the UK? Well, some do – online communities buzz every Monday in the fall with fans who have illegally torrented the latest episode. This is a fact that annoys some of the cast. “I wish you hadn’t told me you watched it illegally,” said Hugh Bonneville during the season 2 US press tour, to a journalist who admitted they’d already seen that year’s Christmas special by nefarious means. “That’s really pissing me off. Shame on you. Be ashamed.”

But PBS is unruffled. Speaking at the Television Critics Association fall previews on Tuesday, the channel’s boss Paula Kerger pointed out that season 4 ratings were up 16% on season 3, with the season premiere up 22% year-on-year and the PBS Sunday-night drama slate up 14% for the year as a whole.

Downton is pirated, but not all that much. In June it didn’t feature in a list of the world’s ten most illegally downloaded TV shows. (They were Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Homeland, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Girls, House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire, Orange Is the New Black and Mad Men.)

“People still are organising on Sunday nights so they can be watching the programme at the same time as their friends,” Kerger observed. “There’s a lot to be said for the collective viewing experience.”

The January-February US viewing schedule – which is a big reason why British viewers see a Christmas Day special that normally isn’t set at Christmas – suits PBS, because it means avoiding the incredibly competitive fall premiere season, when the much richer big networks roll out all their heavily pre-promoted top shows. More and more US shows are now debuting in January, but the fall is still the hot period.

In any case, that Christmas special wouldn’t benefit from being aired at that time in the US, even if it were all tinsel and fir trees, since America has no tradition of showing special editions of its favourite series on 25 December.

The delay has other advantages. PBS re-edits every episode of Downton to remove the ad breaks and make other cuts, including reducing the series to fewer, longer episodes. That would be tricky to do for a simulcast.

It’s also common for the cast to promote the show with British journalists prior to and during its UK run, then fly to the States to do the same for American hacks. This also would not be possible, or would at least be severely hampered, by the US showing Downton in the autumn.


The bottom line is that Downton, in January, is a phenomenon in the States, and a growing one. In the autumn, it might not be. Most American fans are happy to wait.