'Downton' and 'Sherlock': Can a Brit TV invasion topple American dramas?

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With AMC’s The Walking Dead on winter hiatus, the big broadcast networks are finally getting a break on Sunday nights. Everybody will stop talking about that silly cable zombie show and will start focusing on Big 4 programs again — like ABC’s Revenge and CBS’ The Mentalist. Or perhaps the animated hijinks of Fox’s American Dadright?

Not if chilly Lady Mary has anything to say about it. Downton Abbey‘s season 4 premiere delivered a record-setting 10.8 million viewers Sunday night and a 2.1 adults 18-49 rating. The aristocratic period drama beat every broadcast drama in the demo and out-delivered in total viewers every entertainment show onĀ  TV (except for Fox’s The Simpsons, inflated by a lead-in from the biggest NFL wild card game, like, ever).

And Downton will soon import a fellow Brit partner in crime — the third season of ultra-buzzy Sherlock, which gets underway after Downton starting Jan. 19. Though Sherlock had much smaller ratings on PBS than Downton when it last aired two years ago, the bromance detective drama has gained significant pop-culture momentum and fan interest since then (in the UK, both shows recently delivered about the same premiere audience).

So PBS could very well have a block of dramas delivering larger numbers than most of its Sunday night entertainment programming on the big U.S. broadcast networks. Imagine that: Two British drama series potentially beating some of our shows on a popular TV viewing night. Such a foreign upset has probably never before occurred. And it’s all the more intriguing since U.S. broadcasters typically remake overseas hits rather than air them (like Fox is planning with Broadchurch) and often compel Brit actors to use American accents. The horror: Nearly all of Downton‘s cast even has accents. Yet Americans still watched. We can apparently handle it, satin gloves and all. Making matters worse for broadcast is that Sunday nights have weakened for Big 4 dramas over the last few years, with cable grabbing the buzz, the awards and sometimes even the larger ratings.

Delivered by PBS, such a bruising is both easier and tougher for broadcasters to handle compared to getting hammered by The Walking Dead. Easier because it’s not like public-funded PBS actually competes with the Big 4 for commercial ad dollars. Tougher because with The Walking Dead there’s an assumption that goes like this: We wouldn’t air a show that dark and graphic anyway. It’s cable’s relaxed content standards that gives The Walking Dead its edge, right? But Downton and Sherlock are downright puritanical, far more modest in content than many gory broadcast crime dramas.

One cable-like advantage Downton and Sherlock do have is that their seasons are short (around 10 hours for Downton, 4.5 for Sherlock). That’s a major factor. Fewer produced hours typically mean a show’s writers and cast can take the time to craft stronger episodes, and that’s a direction the U.S. industry is likewise trending toward in general. If Sherlock had 22 hours per season, it might play like, well … it might be more like CBS’ Elementary. That’s not meant to diss Elementary, but our own Holmes is a product of the CBS crime drama environment, a high-volume factory that’s unlikely to craft an episode as wonderful as Sherlock‘s season two cliffhanger “The Reichenbach Fall” (if you doubt that claim, ask yourself if any episode of CSI or NCIS ever spawned two years of global fandom obsession). Or how many broadcast soaps aside from Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy have driven pop culture in recent years like Downton, a show that’s inspired endless themed dinner parties and weddings?

What we’re seeing with Downton, and hopefully Sherlock, along with AMC’s ratings sensation that Breaking Bad became this summer, is that there’s really no longer such a thing as a show that is too smart for the living room, or too niche to be a hit, especially if given enough seasons to grow. Excellence + time = massive success. At least, sometimes.


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