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'Downton Abbey': Can't Anyone Keep a Secret?

The hit show's new season premieres in the U.S. this weekend. Hope you haven't already read all about it.

By Leah Rozen

Fans of Downton Abbey — and who isn’t? — face a modern-day dilemma regarding the period drama: how to avoid learning ahead of time what’s going to happen on the new season of the popular PBS series?
News of various plot developments and casting changes blanket the infosphere. That’s because season three, which begins airing Sunday (Jan. 6) already concluded its run last month in England and, I say this lovingly, the British and American press is full of blabbermouths who can’t keep a secret.
We now live in a world that’s digitally connected. It has proven impossible not to be exposed, no matter how much one covers one’s ears and eyes, to spoilers regarding the show. Once Downton’s third season launched in England back in September, there was a steady parade of recaps of episodes in British newspapers and items about Downton doings on U.K. gossip sites. Clips popped up on YouTube and elsewhere. According to The Sun, Michelle Obama requested and was given early copies of season three episodes when she visited England last fall. (If you wanted to, and I’m not encouraging or endorsing this, you could have downloaded season three episodes illegally from various sketchy sites.)
(MORE: 20 Questions for the Silent Star of 'Downton Abbey': The Castle)

Even if you did your best to avoid spoilers, a few sneaked through. Perusing the British press online, you would encounter a revealing reference to Downton that a columnist or reporter had dropped into an otherwise completely unrelated story for a bit of flavor, the way one might add bacon to a salad.
Even The New York Times was guilty. (Warning: skip this paragraph entirely if you truly don’t want to know what might be coming up in the series.) Actor Dan Stevens, who plays blue-eyed charmer Matthew Crawley on Downton, confirmed two weeks ago that, having reached the end of his three-year contract with the show, he wasn’t renewing and would be pursuing other opportunities instead of rejoining the cast next month to begin filming season four. The New York Times ran snippets from quotes the actor gave to The Telegraph, a British paper, and also revealed several key plot twists from the as-yet-unseen season three. “Major spoilers ahead,” The New York Times warned. Ya think?
I don’t want to know this stuff! Downton Abbey is, at its heart, a soap opera. Part of the fun of watching the show is to be surprised by what happens next, who falls in love, who marries, who dies, etc. Spoilers do exactly what the word implies: spoil the surprise.
The solution to the Downton Dilemma is for PBS to broadcast the series here simultaneously to its U.K. airing. Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece (home to Downton), has said the network has that option under review but explains that January and February are a fruitful ratings period for PBS — the show doesn’t have to compete with the fall launches of new series by major American networks. (Click here to see her discuss the topic, at the 17:40 time mark, at a recent Downton Q&A event in New York City.)
There’s precedent for PBS syncing its calendar with U.K. airings of Downton. Hollywood, concerned about piracy, now follows what’s known as a “day and date” strategy for the release of major movies. Translation: Blockbusters, like Skyfall or The Avengers, open in theaters across the globe either on or close to the same day. TV is moving in the same direction. Last fall, BBC launched the new season of Doctor Who, its incredibly popular sci-fi show, in Britain, the United States and Canada at nearly the same time.
Like the little kid who hollered “I want my Maypo” in the old ads for the hot cereal, I want my Downton. I want it as soon as I can get it, as fast as I can get it and I don’t want anyone telling me beforehand what’s going to happen on the show.

Is that too much to ask?

Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade. Read More
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