by Cate Gray, Associate Manuscripts Editor


     On January 5, 2014, PBS premiered season four of critically acclaimed period drama Downton Abbey to record-breaking ratings in the United States.[1]  The problem for diehard fans truly committed to knowing the trials and tribulations of the Crawley family?  In the United Kingdom, the season four finale already aired on December 25, 2013.[2]  Fans of BBC One’s Sherlock can sympathize; season three premiered nearly a month later here in the US than in the UK.[3]

            So, devoted US fans, why not utilize one of the many websites devoted to allowing viewers to stream these shows and stay up to date with our neighbors across the pond?  Simply put, it’s illegal.  In an effort to combat copyright infringement online, Congress defined all such websites as “dedicated to infringing activities” and therefore in violation of title 17 of the United States Code.[4]  But should it be? 

PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, is available to any viewer with a digital antenna, so watching programming on the network doesn’t require a paid cable or satellite subscription.  The network itself is funded largely through private donations.[5]  Therefore, because the public does not pay for the ability to watch the channel, there is a question as to whether there is actual harm done to PBS.  Does streaming content from the United Kingdom that is not yet available to those of us in the United States truly harm PBS?

The more important question, however, is when will the law, and technology, catch up to an increasingly global society?   Television shows no longer have fans based solely in one country, and for those of us behind in broadcasts due to our geographic location, the Internet is a minefield of countless spoilers for episodes yet to air on our local networks.  The delay in airing shows in other counties with large fan bases creates a market for online streaming, and all but encourages fans to engage in a technically illegal activity in order to stay up to date with viewers in other locales.  Such a result places both the U.S. law and television networks in a difficult situation, and only time will tell whether they take steps to decrease the time between premiers in different regions, thereby reducing the need for online streaming.

[1] ‘Downton Abbey’ Season 4 Premiere Breaks PBS Ratings Record, Huffington Post (Jan. 6, 2014, 6:19 PM),


[2] “Downton Abbey” The London Season (TV Episode 2013) – Release Info, iMDB, (last visited Feb. 13, 2014).


[3] “Sherlock” Many Happy Returns (TV Episode 2013) – Release Info, iMDB, (last visited Feb. 13, 2014).


[4] S. 3804, 111th Cong. § 2 (2010).


[5] Support Public Television, PBS,  (last visited Feb. 13, 2014).