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'Masterpiece' for the masses

Under Rebecca Eaton, dramas like 'Downton Abbey' attract more, and younger, viewers.

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She came back to the United States and worked in public broadcasting in a variety of jobs until 1985, when the unexpected death of her predecessor opened up the position of executive producer of "Masterpiece." "I was very green. Henry Becton [then president of WGBH], who gave me this job, took a real flyer on me," she says.

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In 2008 Eaton oversaw the rebranding of "Masterpiece Theatre," dropping the stuffy "Theatre" from the title and splitting the franchise into separate "Classics," "Mystery!" and "Contemporary" series with fresh new hosts.

She follows the Girl Scout advice: Make new friends, but keep the old. "I knew that the backbone of 'Mas­ter­piece' was its loyal viewers, the people who watch week in, week out no matter what we do," she says. "They're just true blue. And they also contribute to their local [PBS] stations. And I thought, 'First do no harm: First, do not drive those people away.' "

But "Downton" has gone beyond this core audience. The second season's average viewership of 5.4 million, up 25 percent from that of the first season, represents the highest rating for any PBS series since Ken Burns's "National Parks" in 2009 – and the highest viewership for "Masterpiece" since "The Buccaneers" in 1995.

But even those numbers don't tell the whole "Downton" story, which includes more than 9 million streams of "Downton" episodes online and 20,000 to 30,000 tweets shared on Twitter by viewers during each live broadcast. Nor do they show its increasingly younger audience: In Season 2, the number of female viewers ages 18 to 34 was up 251 percent from Season 1; male viewers 18 to 34 (not a traditional "Masterpiece" demographic) were up 111 percent. Teenage viewership grew 88 percent.

"Masterpiece" audiences today are finding productions that are "less talky, [with] more innovative camerawork," says Nancy West, an English professor at the University of Missouri and coauthor of a scholarly journal article on "Masterpiece." These newer "Masterpiece" series are "a little less faithful to the original text, willing to take some risks" – including giving a story a new ending or a new beginning or changing "a character we thought we knew into someone a little different," she says.

In "Downton Abbey," which is an original screenplay, not an adaptation, some critics and viewers have seen modern attitudes or figures of speech entering in, something earlier "Masterpiece" productions might have fastidiously avoided.


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