PASADENA, Calif. — "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.
PBS arts programming
PBS's "Live From Lincoln Center" will air six programs through May, including "Kristin Chenoweth: The Dames of Broadway" (March), new concerts by Josh Groban (April) and Audra McDonald (May) and a New York Philharmonic staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" (April).
Kerger has long championed arts programming on PBS, an approach she said feels right after Time Warner Cable recently dropped arts channel Ovation in several major American TV markets.
"Since I became president of PBS, I have been most interested in trying to put a strong emphasis on the arts, in part because of the distinct absence of this work on commercial television," Kerger said. "The recent announcement by Time Warner to drop Ovation is another powerful reminder for me of why it is so profoundly important for the arts to have a rich and robust home on public broadcasting. ... The arts break down barriers between people and cultures and give us a chance to see the world from many different perspectives. I feel strongly that the arts are more than just a luxury, which is sometimes how they're described. Everyone, regardless of their income or where they live, should have access to great music, theater and dance that are the legacy of this country."
"Neighbors" makes plans
ABC's "The Neighbors" (8:30 p.m. EST Wednesdays) has grown from its wacky premise of aliens from outer space who live next door to the human Weaver family, improving its comedy through satirical takes on modern American life.
The show was created by Dan Fogelman ("Cars," ''The Guilt Trip"). He said an upcoming episode features the alien family wanting to experience a Broadway musical, but the humans don't want to take them from their New Jersey neighborhood into New York to see a show.
"They're like teenagers sneaking out," Fogelman said. "They go into the city and come home singing songs from a musical. In the current script, they went and saw 'Annie.' "
Upon returning, the aliens want to put on a show. Broadway/movie composer Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," ''Aladdin") is writing music for the episode.
"I did the movie 'Tangled' with him," Fogelman said at the TV critics press tour last week. "He's written three songs, and it's not like they break into a song in a musical. They're trying to put together a musical. It's more like an episode about musicals."
It appears the alien family will sing of their frustrations with the Weavers.
"The theme of the first song is about all the things in the world (the aliens) wish they could go out and see that the Weavers are preventing them from seeing," he said, "everything from going to a dive bar to getting a circumcision."
"The Neighbors" will build toward a season finale that welcomes the father of Larry Bird (Simon Templeman).
"The two couples go on an adults-only trip to Atlantic City, leaving the teenagers in charge for a night," Fogelman said. "While they're away, Larry Bird's father makes an appearance in the community with some news from home."
Fogelman said the role of Larry Bird's father has been cast, but the actor playing the part has not yet been announced. The season finale won't end in a cliffhanger per se.
"It's more like a 'Holy cow, what's gonna happen next season?' " he said. "It's not 'Lost,' but it's a bit like it leaves you wondering, in season two is a war coming for this little community?"
ABC has not yet picked up "The Neighbors" for a second season.
The second season of Nickelodeon's "Supah Ninjas" will premiere at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 9. ... ABC's experiment with comedies "Happy Endings" and "Don't Trust the B -- in Apartment 23" at 10 p.m. Sunday may be over. The network pulled episodes from this coming Sunday's lineup in favor of a "Shark Tank" rerun. ... AMC has promoted "Walking Dead" supervising producer Scott M. Gimple to executive producer and showrunner in the wake of the departure of the show's second showrunner, Glen Mazzara. ... Oprah Winfrey's interview with Lance Armstrong, where he'll address his involvement in an alleged doping scandal, has now been extended to a two-night affair, airing at 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday on OWN. ... TED Talks will come to PBS April 16 with the public broadcaster airing "TED Talks Education" with Bill Gates among the speakers.