Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of the Times

The recent "Sherlock" special reflects current trends in the worldwide media market.
January 07, 2016
Sherlock and Watson, dressed in Victorian-era clothes.

Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) in "The Abominable Bride."

Credit: Courtesy of (C) BBC/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE

It used to be that PBS audiences first saw British dramas months, even years after they'd aired in the United Kingdom. That often remains true, but things have been changing. Holiday episodes of Call the Midwife aired mere days after their British premieres, and the most recent ones were seen Christmas Day on both sides of the Pond. While Downton Abbey continues to be held back from fall until January here in the States in order to escape the crush of commercial network promotion in September, the third series of Sherlock was delayed only three weeks. (The thinking here is that Sherlock's audience tends to be younger than that of Downton, and therefore more likely to turn to illegal alternate viewing methods.)

The most recent Sherlock special, The Abominable Bride, followed the Midwife's lead and aired on New Year's Day in both the UK and the US. I think that this is an example of the immediacy demanded by denizens of the Internet Age. We want in on the conversations that occur soon after a broadcast of a popular show, even if that show is not yet available in our country. I suspect that the pressure for worldwide, same-day release of mass media content will increase.

The Abominable Bride was unusual in another respect, in that unlike virtually every other program acquired by PBS, American public television stations were restricted to a single telecast for the first release. No repeats were allowed. If you couldn't find it in our overnight schedule this week, that's why.

The reason is due to another metamorphosis in our media environment, the rise of video "events" streamed (often live) into movie theaters. Fathom Events, the company that brings live Metropolitan Opera performances onto big screens, has more recently been offering up episodes of Doctor Who. This week, The Abominable Bride played in theaters across the US, as well as in other countries. (It made more than $5 million in China, which I found surprising for a number of reasons.)

Due to this exclusive engagement, PBS stations were forbidden to repeat the program until this coming Sunday, January 10. It will air at 9:00 pm on WILL-TV, and yes, there will be overnight repeats if you miss it. 

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