I was asked last week--while I was on vacation with my wife--for an interview by a journalist from The Daily Mail, who got in touch to talk to me about PBS' upcoming launch of ITV's period drama Downton Abbey, which stars Hugh Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith, Dan Stevens, Elizabeth McGovern, and a host of others. (It launches on Sunday evening as part of PBS' Masterpiece Classic; my advance review of the first season can be read here.)
Normally, I would have refused, just based on the fact that I was traveling and wasn't working, but I love Downton Abbey and am so enchanted with the project and the work done by creator Julian Fellowes and the series' cast and crew that I relented after several email exchanges.
The journalist in question--that would be Chris Hastings--wanted to talk about Downton's journey across the pond and specifically the cuts that had taken place along the way. When ITV aired Downton Abbey, it did so as seven episodes of varying length, while PBS was airing it as four 90-minute episodes. Which brings us to the main point of this post: despite the fact that I spelled out for Hastings that barely any cuts had been made to Downton Abbey, he wrote a now much-publicized piece for The Daily Mail in which he alleges, according to the hyperbolic lede, that "Downton downsized... by two hours because American TV executives fear its intricate plot will baffle U.S. viewers."
To put it bluntly: it's simply not true.
While I would be incensed about the article to begin with--given that Hastings took up my time on vacation, interrupted me incessantly while I was answering his questions, refused to listen to me, clearly had an agenda of his own, and then had the temerity to quote my review without proper attribution--I'm most angry about the fact that I actually did the math for Hastings during the interview, demonstrating in no certain terms that there weren't two hours missing from the US broadcast of the series.
The only thing missing here are, in fact, the commercials themselves.
Let's take a closer look. PBS is airing Downton Abbey as four 90-minute episodes, bringing it to a run-time of roughly 6 hours. Removing the ad breaks, ITV's run of Downton Abbey ran for--wait for it--roughly six hours. (Two episodes ran as 60 minute installments, while five ran for 45 minutes excluding the commercials, of course.)
I pointed this out to Hastings, who countered by saying that the two episodes were 90 minutes. Yes, I said, with commercials. And I countered again by saying that ITV received complaints after the first episode that there were too many ad breaks. The numbers that Hastings were using to make his case about widespread cuts failed to take into account the commercials, which don't air on PBS, even though he himself admits this in his piece.
But Hastings clearly already had an agenda and he clearly wanted to make a point about "simple" Americans "in the land of the notoriously short attention span."
Furthermore, comments made by executive producer Rebecca Eaton of WGBH Boston, which co-produced Downton Abbey, were taken out of context and misunderstood.
In reorganizing Downton into four installments, editors altered the episodes' structures in order to accommodate the altered timeslot. When Eaton said that heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) came into the storyline in the first episode rather than the second, she's speaking truthfully. He does now appear in the longer-running first 90-minute episode, but it's not that the first hour has been excised from the show. Rather, he appears in the last 30 minutes, which does, yes, quicken the pace of the entail/inheritance storyline by dint of his appearance in Episode One.
Small changes were made in order to get Downton to fit precisely into the running time allotted by PBS. Hastings goes so far as to admit this ("Ms Eaton insisted that any changes were minor and did not affect the quality of the programme."), even though it seems to be at odds with his thesis. And the internet comments that he quotes--again, unattributed--were in fact addressed to me over Twitter and I reassured those involved that it wasn't the case.
He even repeated Eaton's comments about having only made small cuts of dialogue to me on the phone.
Hastings went on to discuss the fact that Masterpiece host Laura Linney explains matters of the entail and of the Buccaneers (American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy during the Gilded Age), using it once again to attempt to slap U.S. viewers. Hastings writes, "PBS also believes its audiences will need an American to outline the key themes of the show."
First, Masterpiece's hosts typically do explore the historical and social contexts for the series. This would include the matter of the entail (which Hastings admits was confusing for British audiences as well) and Lady Cora's role as one of those Buccaneers. Nothing new there as Linney is performing the same role that all of Masterpiece's hosts ably step into before each episode of a program. Second, Linney might be American but her fellow hosts--among them, past and present, David Tennant, Alan Cumming, Matthew Goode, etc.--are not. So I'm not sure what to make of the "Americans need Americans to explain things to them" comment, which just comes across as ill-informed and mean-spirited.
But that seems to be the point of Hastings' piece as a whole, really. His insistence that "two hours" have been cut from the runtime run counter to our interview and mathematics as well. His attempts to get both me and Lord Fellowes to come up with a predicted audience number for Downton in the US failed as neither of us would offer him a guess as to how many people would be tuning in.
It's safe to say, however, that Hastings' wrong-headed article could actually cut that number, as readers of the Daily Mail piece have been up in arms about the (false) loss of two hours of material and the perceived brazenness of PBS executives for altering the show. (Again, untrue.)
But Hastings may have wanted to do the maths for himself, confirm his findings, or actually sit down to watch the imported version of Downton Abbey before writing his article.
His messy article is, in some ways, awfully similar to Mrs. Patmore's salty meringue, and just as unappetizing.
Downton Abbey launches Sunday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on PBS' Masterpiece Classic. Check your local listings for details.
Basically, it's getting trimmed a bit (and some deleted scenes are being added), but it was roughy six hours in the UK and will be roughly six hours in the US, the two hours that was rumored to be 'cut' is all ads, which PBS of course doesn't have.