Setting the Downton Abbey record straight


Ever since the brilliant premiere of Downton Abbey in the UK this past Fall, the anticipation for its Sunday, 9 January, premiere on PBS’ Masterpiece series has been at an all-time high. Both critically acclaimed and a hit with audiences, the period drama returned ITV, at least for a bit, to the forefront of UK television.

Recent “reports” from the UK have suggested that the Downton Abbey which was broadcast in the UK is not what we will see in the US on PBS. Supposedly, the period drama had been cut from its original eight hours to a more short-attention spanned, manageable length of six hours. Some notion having to do with Americans not understanding the inheritance storyline throughout.

Fortunately, I was able to speak with the producers of Masterpiece today and can now set the record straight and leave everyone in America with the assurance that you can handle quality drama on television. Here are the main points to understand as fact….

  1. The series has been trimmed to fit PBS time slots and to allow for Masterpiece packaging, hosting, etc. Most of the reported time disparity is due to the difference between ITV commercial length vs. PBS length conventions
  2. The cuts were made overall throughout the entire series and not from episode one as some reports suggest. Also, this is not an uncommon practice as series cross the Atlantic
  3. Carnival Productions, the original producer of Downton Abbey, did the editing. Not PBS and not Masterpiece
  4. No character or storyline was eliminated, dropped or altered with the edits

There also seems to be a big deal made, again, by the “reports” of having Academy Award nominated actress, Laura Linney, appear at the beginning to “explain” the principle of inheritance. Having seen virtually all of the Masterpiece series over the years, having a host to set the stage for “what you are about to see” is called context and has been a common and welcome practice for the series dating back to the Alistair Cooke days and one that seems rather comforting to this day.

I’d also like to note that the reports that make it a point to remind us that PBS is “non-commercial” might lead one to believe edits should never be made because its not like you are needing to fit in a time slot and need room for commercials (e.g. Doctor Who on Syfy, MI5 on AMC, etc).  If cuts are made, it is merely to make it a tighter show regardless of which side of the pond it originates. If you don’t believe me, check out this explanation on Televisionary from Jace, television columnist for The Daily Beast.

I believe we still possess the ability to grasp good television without succumbing to the need to dumb it down. Not to lapse into a ‘good old days syndrome’ moment, but there was a time when Americans were able to handle 10 hours of Brideshead Revisited, 70+ hours of Upstairs Downstairs or 11+ hours of Reilly: Ace of Spies without too much trouble.

Downton Abbey premieres this Sunday at 8p CT/9p ET on PBS stations nationwide. FYI, for those that want to see those crucial minutes, the North American DVD release will be of the original ITV version as it aired this past Fall.

Until then, 7.5 commercial-filled hours or 6 non-commercial hours, it’s definitely television worth your time.

  • http://anglotopia.net jonathanwthomas

    Thanks for setting the record straight. We posted about the Daily Mail article in a knee-jerk reaction post, but when PBS contacted us and told us it wasn’t true, we removed the article and set the record straight.

    That will teach us to trust anything the Daily Mail says. We really do know better…

    • http://tellyspotting.org Bill Young

      @Jonathan: Thanks so much for the comment and for stopping by Tellyspotting. BTW, I love your site. Great job.

  • Carine

    So, there are still cuts ?

    How much of it was taken down, if you know that is.
    After reading Jace’s article yesterday, I thought there were no cuts at all, just the difference between 7 épisodes at around 45 minutes to 4 épisodes of 90 minutes.

    • http://tellyspotting.org Bill Young

      @Carine: My understanding it that there were minor cuts to tighten the program in the neighbor of 30+ minutes over the course of the entire series. Obviously, creating 4 programs from 7 shorter ones, there was some reversions necessary which caused things that happened in the first UK program to appear in the second US program, etc. but, all-in-all, minimal cuts and nothing that would alter the storyline. Hope this helps.

  • Carine

    That’s 3/4 of an episode if it’s around 30 minutes. So you’re getting about 6 episode and a quarter pretty much instead of 7.

    I understand the need to change the length of the program, but the editing not so much.

    thanks for the answer

  • Catherine

    Even though PBS did not do the cutting, the cutting was done FOR PBS, so from my point of view, that makes PBS the anti-art villain. (I’m in the U.S.)

  • R. Anderson

    For god’s sake, Catherine, PBS is NOT anti-art or the villain. PBS is what allows shows like this to be seen here, at all! There are restrictions, and that is unfortunate, but PBS brings quality television to viewers, especially those without cable. PBS is all about art and quality programing. PBS does not air commercials, because they aren’t about profit. They don’t air what will make them money, they air good programing.

    If requirements forced the show to be cut a bit, that is deeply unfortunate and I hate that too, but without PBS many viewers in the US wouldn’t be seeing this at all, so they are hardly the enemy. It is because of support from PBS that many quality shows exist.

  • Nathan

    So, can you shed some final light on the two DVD/BR versions available? You mentioned that the DVD release would include the original version, but there are two editions out there: The normal one and the “British Unedited” one (touting double the price tag). I’m just trying to evaluate whether the “unedited” one is worth it.

    Also, I discovered and fell in love with this show via Netflix Watch Instantly. Do you know if that was the edited or unedited version? (Just fyi, the first and last episodes were barely over an hour and all of the middle eps were roundabout 45 minutes)

    Thanks!

    • http://tellyspotting.org Bill Young

      @Nathan: Let me do some Sherlock work on this and see what I can come up with. Will send you e-mail when I can figure it out. ok?

  • Nathan

    Thanks! I appreciate it.