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'Masterpiece' for the masses

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

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"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.

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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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