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.”
PBS’s argument for its continued existence is the fact that it does fundamentally different work than any other television outlet. “British costume drama hasn’t been particularly appealing to network broadcasters in recent memory,” Ms. Eaton said of Downton, citing HBO as the only possible outlet for similar programming and noting that without PBS, “It’s unlikely Downton would have been seen in this country.” Ms. Kerger noted the instructive example of the onetime highbrow channels that now air Ice Road Truckers, Intervention, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and American Chopper: “The latest is History, but if you look at A&E, if you look at Bravo, if you look at some of the work of Discovery, the commercial networks start with higher intentions, but the market is going to take you down a different path.” (She didn’t mention Ovation or Trio; she didn’t have to.)
Interestingly, and perhaps tragically, PBS pioneered many of the most lucrative TV genres. Julia Child’s The French Chef was among the first cooking shows, and now we have two networks devoted to the format. An American Family created the template for reality. Sesame Street laid the groundwork for Nickelodeon. This Old House begat HGTV.
More recently, Downton-adjacent programming like the documentary Secrets of the Manor House indicate PBS may finally be learning to strike while the iron is hot.
Ms. Kerger cited Showtime’s Homeland as the sort of contemporary drama that would do well on PBS, but it would have made for an odd fit. Perhaps the flukiest thing about Downton’s success is how perfectly the show meshes with the PBS brand; by staying in its own lane, PBS got a win that required no pivoting, no rebranding, no stooping.
The great temptation, then—and the risk—is taking Downton’s success as a sign that PBS’s longstanding strategy will continue to work. “This is what we do week in and week out, so we have a built-in audience who was there, cheering that along and watching every minute of it,” Ms. Eaton said of Downton. Nonetheless, many of Downton fans hadn’t been regular PBS viewers since kindergarten. Viewers have tuned in for sex and death and gossip and big hats, and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll hang around. “We have another season of Sherlock that looks really great,” Ms. Kerger said. “That’ll be out later this spring, and I’m hoping some of the Downton audience will stick with that.”
Perhaps the greatest boon to PBS has been on the web side: Dan Greenberg, head of WNET’s Interactive Engagement Group in New York, noted that the show has been “an incredible generator for traffic,” adding, “We’ve seen an increase in donations and membership, and an extreme level of user-generated content.” For all the fustiness of its setting, Downton Abbey’s helped draw attention to the fact that PBS streams all its shows online—where a pledge is just a few clicks away. And PBS isn’t concerned about eating its own Nielsen’s lunch by making material available on the internet. “It used to be that ‘We have to make them watch on air,’ Mr. Greenberg said, “but now we have to supply them with content so they can watch the way they want.”
PBS is actually not a network. Like NPR, it’s a system of local member stations, which receive the majority of the federal government’s investment in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which stands at $445 million in the most recent budget). All PBS programming is produced or licensed through one of its local affiliates, which get a great deal more leeway than your average NBC or ABC station. Most innovation, then, will happen at the local level. New York’s WNET recently launched “MetroFocus,” an online newsmagazine that will eventually transition to the air—after it becomes a smartphone app that serves up news on-the-fly.
Meanwhile, although AOL might not be most networks’ idea of an perfect business partner, Ms. Kerger has joined forces with Tim Armstrong to jointly promote Makers, an online interview series that will go to air in first-quarter 2013.
As to the danger of defunding, David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, has been arguing for for years that the government should get out of the broadcast business; he declared PBS a “public menace” in a New York Post editorial last June. “I don’t know any reason why PBS couldn’t be a nonprofit network that relied on foundational giving to a slightly greater degree than they do,” he said. Claiming that the federal government provides only 15 percent of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s annual budget, he added, “Do you know how many households have lost 15 percent of their income? And some of them have survived.” (In fiscal year 2009, PBS and its member stations derived 21.9% of their budget from federal funding.)
It’s not hard to imagine a future for PBS as a nonprofit that keeps the brand intact—drawing in donations and corporate partnerships—while innovating on the margins. What WNET President Neal Shapiro, whose career began in commercial television, calls “the work of the angels” could fall slightly to earth without going to hell in a handbasket. Then again, perpetual war has long meant perpetual success for PBS: “Last year, when there was a move to defund PBS, our viewers were mobilized—they sent donations, they called Capitol Hill,” Mr. Shapiro said.
But Mr. Boaz highly doubts that a post-federal-funding future will come to pass, no matter who is elected: “PBS and NPR audiences are the most influential in America,” he admitted. “There may be a lot of waitresses out there who’d rather have Randy Travis subsidized, but they’re not making decisions.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Boaz is thoroughly enjoying Downton Abbey. “I must say Lord Grantham is just as perfect and judicious and generous and metes out justice and equity to every person,” he said. “I can’t help but admire him—I just marvel at how noble he is.”
Ms. Kerger, PBS’s President, prefers the youngest daughter: “I love Lady Sybil. I think she’s amazing. I think that she is a woman that is trying to forge her own way.”