During the Olympics, Americans were all freaking out that the games were airing live in London and that NBC wasn’t carrying them in real time. We didn’t think we could survive the until the prime time hours to find out the results of the events we cared the most about it. Remember all the outcry about spoilers and #NBCFail and how this should never happen in the age of the internet? Well, it’s happening all over again, but this time we don’t have to wait a mere five hours to see one of the most hotly anticipated events of the year, we have to wait months.
The third season of every English major’s favorite soap opera, Downton Abbey, premiered last night. No, not on it’s American home on PBS, but on ITV, the channel in Britain that produces it. It was a huge smash (more than 8.5 million in the U.K., which is like American Idol numbers in a country of its size). But we’re not going to hear anything about it, because PBS isn’t going to start airing the third season (or “series” as those crazy Brits call it) until January. Yes, January. The “series” will have long wrapped by then, and we still haven’t even seen even one of the Dowager Countess’ witty rejoinder. Not only is that not fair, it’s bad business.
Most of us fans of the Crawleys, their servants, and the ever-shifting dynamics in their crusty little castle will wait for the show to air on PBS, avoiding British news outlets and Twitter outbursts from our friends across the pond on Sunday nights and Monday mornings so that we don’t find out if Lady Mary is pregnant (it seems probable), Bates is exonerated (it seems unlikely), or O’Brien did something bitchy (it seems inevitable). Most of the record-breaking audience for the show will wait patiently, but the die hard fans, at least those with the technological savvy, have already watched the first episode thanks to illegal downloading. Yes, these content pirates are sailing the rocky seas of the internet and looking for their treasure. It’s not that hard to find.
This is why it is crazy for PBS to wait so long to air the show. And the same goes for American channels that twiddle their thumbs instead of shipping our favorite shows to our former colonial oppressors with the expedience Sir Walter Raleigh unloaded his tobacco crop. The most ardent fans (and the youngest ones that advertisers crave) won’t play your game and they’ll go off finding whatever way they can to watch their favorite show now! If you asked people to wait a day or a week to see new episodes, I bet people would do it — especially on PBS, which is free to all — but having to wait months in an on-demand culture is just asking too much, especially when we all know it’s already out there.
A show like Downton, that has a big audience but could get even bigger, could do well to link up with the British premiere. Think about how excited everyone would be if both the British and American press were flogging the premiere, revving up their recappers, and live tweeting each other into oblivion. This would be an international event, just like the Olympics. But, because of the lag time, PBS is losing viewers faster than Tomas the valet could swipe the house’s best silver. These are the viewers who love the show so much that they would actually donate to PBS if they did a telethon before, after, or during its run. They don’t even want the tote bag. Or, what PBS could do, is run a telethon and say, “We’re not going to show you the second half of this episode until we have raised $5 million. Please call this number to resume viewing.” It could be using this to make money, but, instead, they’re squandering the opportunity. The same goes for HBO, which maintains a clamp-down on its content until well after it has aired. Check out this excellent essay about why one writer felt forced to pirate a season of Game of Thrones because he had no other access to it.
I’m not saying piracy is right or fair. As a person who creates content for a living, I don’t think anyone should feel entitled to read, listen to, or watch things for free. However in this changing technological world the old ways of delivering shows to the public that are clamoring for them and raising the most revenue from those shows is shifting. Not realizing that there is a shift or trying to stop it is futile. The industry needs to evolve and adapt it’s going to meet the Darwinian fate of, well, the British colonial system. Downton Abbey isn’t a problem, but a symptom. It is reminder that, in the age of the Internet, there aren’t any more bags to put the cats in. It is time to change before the whole system comes crashing down around our ears. And if this wake up call gets us some Shirley MacLaine a little bit faster, then so the much better for all of us.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: PBS]