Sherlock: Thinking Caps on Standby

If you watch any British television, chances are you’ve learned something about patience and uncertainty.  Television in the US can get a bit wonky – just look at the ridiculous, protracted hiatuses that Grimm endured last season – but for the most part, the general scheduling is fairly predictable.  Popular and new shows tend to start in the fall and wrap up in the spring.  Other shows are introduced in January, as the duds have been canceled quickly.  There’s also a small summer season.  And if a show is successful, you can count on new content each and every year until it gasps its last breath.

Not so for British television.  First, seasons (series) are often much shorter.  Whereas US network television features seasons that range from 13 to 26 episodes and often stretch them over many months, in the UK it’s much more common for series to fall in the 6 to 13 range.  A show barely starts before you’re missing it already.   Then there’s no telling if, or when, a show will be picked up for another series; it’s not unheard of for years to pass between series.  Even when it comes to very popular shows like Doctor Who, there’s an air of uncertainty; you may know a show has been picked up, or even that it’s filming, but the specific release date might not come until a few weeks prior to airing.

Such is the case with Sherlock, another show that has successfully crossed over to US audiences.  Sherlock is even more unusual; there are only three episodes per series, and each episode is stand-alone and 90 minutes, like three movies.  Then there’s the issue with air dates; it’s not unusual for British imports to be delayed by half a year or more, but the popularity of certain shows and availability of downloads – again, see Doctor Who – have demanded a somewhat shorter gap.

Muddled in Translation

PBS, which airs Sherlock, Downton Abbey and others, has actually been a bit problematic in this regard.  Most of the imported shows tend to shown under the Masterpiece heading, which, in recent years, was split into Masterpiece Mystery and Masterpiece Classic.   Each section has something of its own season – which was the problem with series 2 of Sherlock.

The first series was broadcast on the BBC in July and August 2010, and then on PBS in October; not ideal if you’re a fan, but no one could have predicted how the show would go over in the US.  It was a hit pretty much instantly, especially for PBS.  By the time series 2 was ready in 2012, PBS had each of their “seasons” anchored by an imported favorite – Downton Abbey for Masterpiece Classic (airing a few months after its initial broadcast on iTV), and Sherlock for Masterpiece Mystery.  And there was the problem – while series 2 was airing in the UK in January, it wouldn’t air on PBS until May, with the other Mystery programs.  Many did not wait that long, especially with a cliffhanger ending that was discussed everywhere on the internet.

Coming in Clear

Most assumed that a similar setup would occur in 2014, though no one knew exactly when Sherlock would air on the BBC.  Downton Abbey was already assumed to be a lock for January.  But in the last week, exciting and unexpected news has arisen!  Sherlock will also premiere on January 19, airing after Downton Abbey.  The website is also unclear about whether Masterpiece Mystery, Masterpiece Classic and the less-known Masterpiece Contemporary are actually grouped together, so perhaps we’re just to call it all Masterpiece and leave it at that; personally, I’d rather space out my mysteries over the course of the year anyway.

So we have an air date for PBS – and it’s much sooner than expected!  This in itself would be exciting news, but one mystery solved raises another: it’s already the end of October, and the BBC will still probably want to air Sherlock first (they have the rights to do so), so when will their broadcast be?

Chances are, it’ll still be before January 19, but if you’re a US fan, it will hopefully be that much easier to avoid internet spoilers and wait to watch it over the air.  It feels a bit like a belated holiday present, especially since the filming of the series was delayed by the involvement of both Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in other movies (and, of course, the new Hobbit film featuring both will also be coming out in December, yet another holiday gift).

So what about you?  If you’re in the US, will you be able to hold off watching Sherlock until the air date, or will you still be scouring the internet for a BBC broadcast?  Will you be making it a double feature with Downton Abbey, or will you tune in directly after your fifth showing of the Desolation of Smaug?  Share your thoughts below!

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