Dowager Network PBS Charts a Post-Downton Future

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Can they save PBS?

Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece franchise about life at a stately British manor, began with the sinking of the Titanic; its recently-concluded second season took on the Great War and the influenza outbreak. It’s a series about people unaccustomed to change suddenly dealing with staggering new technological and sociological realities, those who have long enjoyed a privileged position scrambling to preserve their birthright.

Little wonder it’s on PBS.

The network, too, has been under assault, its powerful patrons once again debating whether to disinherit it altogether. In 2009, PBS President Paula Kerger claimed that the changing media landscape had led to “clearly the most challenging times that this industry has ever faced.” She hadn’t seen anything yet. Last February, the House voted to defund public radio and television. (The measure died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.) Then came the March 2011 “sting” undertaken by James O’Keefe against NPR, which resulted in the departure of NPR President Vivian Schiller and increased scrutiny of public broadcasting overall. In December 2011, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney vowed that in his administration, “Big Bird is going to have advertisements.”

Thank goodness for Downton, the February season finale of which drew an average audience of 5.4 million, nearly a million more than the better-rated night of Kim Kardashian’s wedding and double the Mad Men finale. Meanwhile, the series has inspired a slew of fan Tumblrs and viewing parties and even a Saturday Night Live parody.

“We’ve had programs out of Masterpiece that have really captured the public’s eye going back through our history,” Ms. Kerger told The Observer. “Programs like The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Brideshead Revisited. This is very much like a Brideshead—a program that fits a lot of what we do on a regular basis but for a lot of the right reasons, just resonates.”

The Six Wives of Henry VIII ran on what was then called Masterpiece Theatre in 1972, and Brideshead Revisited in 1982. Back then, of course, most TV dials went up to 13 (if you don’t count UHF), and more than half the channels were snow. It was easier to break through. The network best known for Sesame Street, Antiques Roadshow, and respected-if-not-loved shows like Frontline and NewsHour hasn’t had this kind of cultural currency in 30 years. Can Downton rebuild the fractured PBS audience—or is it just postponing the inevitable?

“We have to try to keep Julian Fellowes alive—we can’t just work him into the ground,” exclaimed Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece. She was referring to the Oscar-winning screenwriter whose plan for the project got PBS to jump in as coproducer. (Downton Abbey airs in the U.K. on the commercial network ITV—which explains how your web-savvy neighbors pirated the second season long before you watched it.) While Downton was intended as a miniseries, its success was irresistible; the third season, with Shirley MacLaine, is to air in the U.S. in January 2013, and more may follow.
What made this project work when others (ahem, the new Upstairs, Downstairs) disappeared without a trace?

“If I knew that, I would do it again really fast,” Ms. Eaton said. “It is a little bit of black magic.”

Ms. Eaton said that the success of Downton has influenced what will air on future Masterpiece installments only incidentally: “It’s affected the decision-making process of my colleagues in England, so there are more long-running miniseries being commissioned than before.” (PBS serves as a coproducer, but does not independently produce any Masterpiece programs.) “But it isn’t an either-or for Masterpiece, because our stock-in-trade has always been adaptations of classic books. We will always do those.” Next up is an adaptation of Great Expectations (are we ready for “Team Estella” and “Team Pip”?).

As edifying and high-minded as it may be, Masterpiece is also a money-maker. It originated in 1971 under a sponsorship with Mobil, which continued for 33 years. This year, Viking River Cruises, a travel company, signed on to sponsor Downton Abbey’s second season and the rest of the Masterpiece slate in 2012, though its ads do not interrupt the broadcast and avoid the FCC-prohibited “call-to-action.” They don’t tell you, exactly, to go on a cruise.

“They knew what they were doing,” Ms. Eaton said, noting that it was clear by then that Downton was on fire. “They did the calculus and knew that this was going to be a tremendous opportunity for that company. It was very shrewd.”
Ms. Eaton said  she doubted whether PBS would have sprung for the coproduction had the defunding occurred in early 2011. “At the time we made the deal for Downton one, we had no corporate sponsor. All of our money came from PBS.”

Actually, the defunding would have taken effect before the series’ second season, we reminded her, by which time PBS would have had the infusion of corporate cash to fund the production.

The reply was terse. “Yep.”