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What Strong Ratings For ‘Downton Abbey’ Mean

Downton Abbey scored 4.2 million viewers in its return on Sunday, 1.28 million viewers more than Mad Men averaged in its most recent season and just 280,000 viewers below what Community averaged in its second season (in other words, numbers NBC would like to see again as a minimum). The numbers are cheering if only because it’s nice to see that public television can score a program that’s as compelling as network offerings, that if public broadcasting is to be the bastion of eggheads and intellectuals, that there are 4.2 million of them willing to turn out to support quality programming.

But what does it mean for what kind of slate PBS might put together? I’ve been having some trouble finding ratings for the U.S. airing of Sherlock on PBS, but it certainly seems at least like an anecdotal success. Luther got poor ratings on BBC America, which may be a product of the network’s availability as a standard part of cable packages, despite the fact that it seems like a logical crossover for those of us nostalgic for The Wire. I wonder if it might have been more successful on PBS, and helped PBS build a bit of edgy cred, as Luther is nothing if not often and significantly uncomfortable. I do think it’s a challenge for PBS, both in terms of its public support and building a broader audience long-term, to be seen as too British. But how awesome would a drama block that starts with Downton, continues to Sherlock, and ends with Luther be?

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