PASADENA

PBS president Paula Kerger insists that she's not trying to "punish" American TV viewers by airing "Downton Abbey" in early winter, months after it appeared in the United Kingdom.

Season 3 of the wildly popular period melodrama attracted 7.9 million viewers for its PBS premiere on Jan. 6 -- a number that quadrupled the average audience for the public television system. Still, many fans are complaining about having their viewing experience "spoiled" because key plot points have been circulating on the Internet and elsewhere for months since the show aired during the fall across the pond.

Shirley MacLaine joins the fun during Season 3 of "Downton Abbey."
Shirley MacLaine joins the fun during Season 3 of "Downton Abbey." ( Photo Nick Briggs nick@nickbrigg )

Kerger told reporters at the TV critics winter press tour that PBS has been looking at trying to get the U.S. and U.K. premieres to sync up closer to one another ("It's a question of great debate"), but said it is "complicated for a number of reasons." One factor: In the U.K., "Downton Abbey" airs with commercials, which have to be edited out for its U.S. run.

Kerger also noted that it may not be in the best interest of PBS to air its hottest property in the fall, when the broadcast networks are flooding the airwaves with new programs, rather than January, when it can draw much more attention.

She likened the "Downton" experience to watching the tape-delayed Olympics: Viewers may know the outcome, but they still watch anyway.


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When a journalist argued that many regard the Olympic delivery as a punishment, she replied,

"We're not punishing our viewers."

"We're just looking at it very carefully," added Kerger, who acknowledged the benefits of a "collective viewing experience."

"People want to feel like they're participating in something all together," she said.