These past two weeks I have been anticipating Downton Abbey daily, getting ready for PBS’s presentation of the series, researching historical tidbits that will add to the reader’s enjoyment, and eagerly anticipating the U.S. audience’s reaction.
Then The Daily Mail (or The Daily Fail, as an astute reader called the tabloid) published an article, Downton Downsized, accusing PBS of cutting 2 hours from the original 8 hour U.K. presentation. Writer Chris Hastings not only pointed to the edits with glee, but accused PBS of dumbing down the series for American audiences. Hastings quoted PBS Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton as admitting “that American audiences demand a ‘different speed’ to their shows.”
The article was an insult to the American viewing audience, and PBS for that matter. It did not take into account that PBS shows no commercials (as ITV does), which means that the U.S. And U.K. Versions of Downton Abbey are practically the same length, even with minor editing. Neither did it acknowledge that PBS viewing audiences are sophisticated, patient, well-read, and well-traveled, as well as knowledgable about history and social customs in the U.K.
I watched the first two ITV episodes of Downton Abbey, to compare them to the so called edited PBS version. I saw so little difference, even with the discussion about inheritances and the British entail, that I wondered what this across-the-pond kerfuffle was all about.
When Sarah Crompton from The Telegraph, wrote her opinion about The Daily Fail’s article, she gave me hope that relations between U.S. and U.K. viewing audiences are still friendly and filled with mutual respect. Crompton wrote:
“Anyone who has read any of the novels of Edith Wharton will know that the statement from PBS executive producer Rebecca Eaton that “we thought there might be too many references to the entail… It is not a concept people in the US are very familiar with” is simply untrue. The difficulties of fortune and inheritance power whole tracts of American 19th-century fiction.”
Crompton goes on to say with confidence that educated American audience would have no trouble following Downton Abbey’s plot. She also found Eton’s statement extraordinary, mentioning The Wire and The Larry Sanders Show as two examples of intelligent, complex and creative television shows that originated in the U.S. and that our audiences have supported.
“This is, after all, the country that gave us The Wire, possibly the most complex series of plotlines ever devised. Are we really to think that US audiences understand drug-dealing in Baltimore any better than they grasp 19th-century legal shenanigans? Of course not. PBS is just being silly.
It is, ironically, the sophistication of the best of American television that I most admire.” – Sarah Crompton, The Telegraph, Americans Understand the Wire, So Why Simplify Downton Abbey for Them?
Insulted by The Daily Mail’s stance, I placed a poll about the edits on my regular Sunday Throwdown feature on Jane Austen Today, asking readers what they thought. The results of that poll demonstrate that PBS viewers do not want to watch a changed version of this British show or any British show for that matter. We feel confident that we can take the slow-pokey, esoteric passages as well as any Brit and not yawn half-way through or lose our way because we don’t understand British social customs or legalities.
The comments left by those who voted in the poll show that the PBS brass might be overreacting to our willingness to sit through exposition. I suspect that in talking about needing a faster-paced plot, Ms. Eaton was discussing the new viewers PBS is courting, but this is only a guess. Be that as it may, in their comments the poll voters expressed mostly their hurt from The Daily Mail’s view about American audiences and the nasty tone of the article. Here is a sampling:
If we Americans can watch 8 hours of Bleak House and Little Dorrit and love it, then we should be able to handle [Downton Abbey]. As for the plot being complicated, Americans flocked to “Inception” and loved it. No way “Downton Abbey” can be more complicated than that.
Rebecca Eaton should know that the attention span problem she refers to does not apply to “her” audience!
I’m very disappointed. Below the Daily Mail article sits a parody for American viewers to help us “understand” the series.
“…although it seems the beautifully nuanced portrait of pre-First World War upper-class life could prove just a little too complex for the transatlantic audience.” How insulting!
I am offended by anyone who would feel the American audience can’t support good drama.
I was weaned on Masterpiece Theatre and PBS and this pains me to see this reaction by Eaton. I have seen the UK version. It is not that complicated.
I am really hurt by this attitude! England means the world to me. How can they say Americans need these shows dumbed down?
This is typical ignorance on the part of the Brits. I say that as an American of much experience and relatives in UK. Annoyed as hell.
Don’t underestimate the size of the American audience who are longing for something other than arid, mindless TV fair geared to a 10 year old audience!!!
I think The Daily Mail article brought up two issues that raised hackles and confused readers, who assumed that PBS shared Chris Hastings’ disdain for the American viewing audience and that we require dumbed down versions of British T.V. shows in order to understand them. Since this mentality was shared by Joe Wright, who directed Pride and Prejudice 2005 and who offered an insulting “American” ending for U.S. audiences, no wonder we are baffled.
The second issue is one that many of us who adore PBS imports from Britain have noticed all too often recently. When purchasing the BBC (or ITV) and PBS versions of the same movies, PBS films are routinely shorter, with scenes that have been cut out. Why? These edited versions (sometimes only one or two scenes are missing) lend credence to Rebecca Eaton’s assessment that U.S. audiences demand a different pace. I would love for this PBS executive to explain her statement more fully, for I must admit that the differences between the first two episodes of ITV’s version of Downton Abbey and PBS’s first 100 minutes are so minor as to be barely noticeable. If this is the case, and if the change in pace is barely perceptible, and if Matthew Crawley still shows up in the first 90 minutes, why make the changes at all?
Other bloggers who have written about this controversy:
- Enchanted Serenity of Period Films
- In Defense of Downton Abbey (Or, Don’t Believe Everything You Read)