Brow Beat

The Latest Indignity for American Fans of Downton Abbey

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.

© 2010 Courtesy of MASTERPIECE

American Downton Abbey addicts who wait to watch the show when it airs on PBS suffered another indignity this week when it was reported that iTunes subscribers will get “early” access. iTunes (and Amazon Instant Video) will make the final three episodes of Season 3 available to purchasers of a Downton Abbey season pass on Jan. 29, which means subscribers will be able to watch Episodes 5, 6, and 7 before TV viewers. (Episode 7, which was the show’s Christmas special in the United Kingdom, will air on PBS nearly three weeks later, on Feb. 17.)

When I asked PBS why digital subscribers got an early look at the final episodes, a spokeswoman pointed out that the digital release matches the “street date” for the Season 3 DVD set, which will also go on sale on Jan. 29. “There have always been VHS or DVD release dates within the broadcast window of any given title,” she wrote in an email. “In this case iTunes is simply selling a digital version at the same time as the physical DVD becomes available.”

This may be true, but Downton Abbey is Masterpiece’s first highly serialized show in a long time. I’ve enjoyed other Masterpiece series more than DowntonFoyle’s War and Inspector Lewis in recent years, for example—but their short seasons (usually three or four episodes) and the use of stand-alone mysteries rather than a soapy plot-twist-filled structure like Downton’s, leave viewers much less invested in knowing how the story lines work out (less spoiler-phobic, also). And classics such as Great Expectations and The Old Curiosity Shop, which Masterpiece aired during Dickens’ sesquicentennial in 2012, lost their ability to be spoiled more than 100 years ago.

Downton Abbey is a huge hit for PBS—7.9 million viewers watched the Season 3 premiere, which is quadruple the network’s average primetime rating—and I do understand PBS’s and Masterpiece’s desire to monetize the show’s astonishing popularity. It’s just too bad that the last people who get to see the show are the network’s loyal viewers.