'Masterpiece' for the masses

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

By , / Staff writer

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    PBS’s ‘Downton Abbey,’ with its massive cast, is a breakout hit. Next season will see the addition of Shirley MacLaine as Lady Cora’s American mother. Season 3 opens in the spring of 1920 and spans about 18 months.
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Will Lady Mary and her soul mate, Mat­thew, really wed? Will beloved manservant Mr. Bates escape the hangman's noose? Will Mrs. O'Brien's shocking secret be revealed?

The lives of people, both high- and low-born, on a rural English estate nearly a century ago wouldn't seem a likely subject for a hit television series. But "Downton Abbey," whose second season ended in late February, has broken out of the highbrow world of public television and into wider public consciousness, winning unheard-of ratings, numerous awards (six Emmys, including best miniseries), and adoration from fans and critics – all while attracting a new, younger audience that eagerly shares the series on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

"Downton" may have also removed the last layer of dust from "Mas­terpiece," the more than four-decades-old Sunday night PBS staple where "Downton" appears. "Masterpiece," once defined by the image of avuncular Alistair Cooke discoursing on the fine points of English literature from a wingback chair, has become a fully 21st-century franchise.

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Yet longtime viewers are finding nothing amiss. When a "Masterpiece" series clicks, as "Downton" has, audiences both new and old are rewarded with great stories well told.

What else is in store this season

"Downton Abbey" has been "a gift, a blessing, a windfall," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Mas­ter­piece" for the past 27 years. "It has pulled in a great number of new viewers or lapsed viewers." Now that "we have them back in the tent," she says, the aim is to keep them there.

The 2012 schedule is chock-full of efforts to do just that. April 1 sees a new adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations," starring American actress Gillian Ander­son ("The X-Files"), David Suchet ("Poirot"), and Ray Winstone ("Hugo," "Cold Mountain"). April 15 offers more Dickens (2012 is the 200th anniversary of his birth) with "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

That's followed by a run of "Masterpiece" mysteries beginning with the second season of "Sherlock," featuring rising star Benedict Cumberbatch as the iconic detective, reimagined as though at work today, aided by an Afghan war veteran named Dr. Watson. It's followed in July by "Wallander," featuring a tightly wound Swedish detective (Kenneth Branagh) obsessed with solving crimes.

Later in the summer comes "Endeav­our," a prequel imagining how popular "Masterpiece" detective Inspector Morse (played by the late John Thaw from 1988 to 2001) first honed his deductive powers as a rookie constable in 1965.

While the cases these "Masterpiece" detectives investigate are intriguing, what sets these men apart are their quirks and inner struggles, Ms. Eaton says. "They are loners; they are all soulful characters," she says, "complicated people with dark sides, obsessions. They're bright. Some of them have tremendous compassion: Wallander can't have a personal life because he's so drawn to the lives of his victims."

Although all the "Masterpiece" series are produced in Britain ("I'm turned east [to England] rather than west to Hollywood," Eaton says) it's Eaton who chooses them for Amer­ican audiences. She can be a difference­maker since PBS often provides the last crucial piece of funding to give a project the green light.

Her choice of "Downton Abbey" has been so on the money that last year Time magazine named her one of the most influential people of 2011.

"I have to say I thought it was a joke when I first heard about it," Eaton says in an interview in her tiny, windowless office decorated with photos of "Masterpiece" stars and productions at WGBH headquarters in Boston. "[But] I'm happy to represent 'Masterpiece' and all the hundreds of people both here at WGBH and in England who make these programs."

Says Andrew Davies, who has written several screenplays for "Mas­ter­piece" (including "Pride and Prejudice"), in a recent interview in Vanity Fair: "Rebecca is the pre-eminent go-to partner when you are setting up a classy drama production.... She brings her whole sensibility to a project, and her notes come from the heart as well as from the head."

A risky promotion at WGBH

An American who grew up in southern California, Eaton went to Eng­land to work at the BBC while still an English literature major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "I just loved it," she recalls. "I thought, 'I belong here' " – meaning in England in general, not just at the BBC.

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.

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.

"I think there's been this movement to write so that the present [day] becomes more present in the past, so that we can see ourselves more clearly in these situations," Dr. West says.

West has been a "Masterpiece" fan since childhood, when she watched with her mother. Today she hosts "Masterpiece" viewing parties and says she finds that many of her college students are fans, too.

Fans are also having fun with the series online. (Mashups have included a YouTube video of favorite witty, one-liner insults from the dowager countess, played by Emmy-winning Maggie Smith and one that appears to show the "Downton" household watching the Super Bowl.)

Online chats about "Masterpiece," West says, are "just a new way of keeping the story alive. And if it gets people to go back and read those original novels, so much the better."

Besides employing social media, Eaton and her WGBH collaborators have also been innovative fund-raisers. Last year a new Masterpiece Trust brought in $1 million from an appeal to deep-pocketed fans, who gave between $25,000 and $250,000 apiece. Eaton hopes to top that in 2012.

"PBS funding is uncertain because it always is," she says, calling federal funding "a political football." To avoid a backlash from local PBS stations, which are constantly trying to raise funds, the Masterpiece Trust money is split with them. "That model has really caught on," she says.

Eaton would love to tell American stories on "Masterpiece," but she can't match the high quality of programming she gets per dollar spent when teaming with the British.

"If we were going to make Amer­­ican 'Mysteries,' American 'Mas­ter­pieces,' which would be wonderful to do ... they would cost 10 times as much as to coproduce with the British," she says. "It's too bad."

Eaton is now looking well into 2013 and beyond. "Downton Abbey" Season 3 will air early next year and include Oscar-winner Shirley Mac­Laine as a visiting American heiress who, fans anticipate, will be a formidable sparring partner for Ms. Smith's acerbic dowager. Ms. MacLaine has already tweeted about her experiences shooting new episodes.

'You are uplifted ... fed ... energized'

Even while "Masterpiece" is reaching out to a wider audience, Eaton sees it steadfastly occupying a special niche, too. "I love the thought that it's higher quality than a lot of other drama on television," she says. "That it's less exploitative, violent, sensational, sexual. I like that. It's often about relationships and moral struggles and larger ideas."

Eaton has a theory, she says, as to why people sometimes tell her that they've been profoundly moved by a "Masterpiece" series. Watching the best of them, she says, "you are uplifted. You are somehow fed or energized.

"It's just a human reaction to good work, to quality, to artistry, to craftsmanship.... I hope that every now and then we do that."

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