Magazine article Variety

Abbey' a Boon for PBS

Magazine article Variety

Abbey' a Boon for PBS

Article excerpt

It seemed the entire world mourned the loss of "Downton Abbey," but perhaps nowhere else was the pain of departure so strongly felt than at PBS. The leisurely stroll through a more genteel period struck a chord with a wide range of viewers that no one could have expected - least of all PBS.

At the time PBS opted to pick up "Downton," which was produced by Carnival Films for ITV in the U.K., the pubcaster was already looking to revive some much-needed interest in its programming by bringing back another British story of the aristocracy and their faithful staff, "Upstairs, Downstairs." The original was a ratings bonanza, and the commitment to the revival was in place when an offer came for the thematically reminiscent "Downton."

"There was a moment when it was felt that 'Downton' would be too similar [to 'Upstairs'], and perhaps it wouldn't work. But it just looked like such a great series, we went with it," says Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. "Of course, it turned out to be a phenomenon."

Since its premiere in January 2011, "Downton Abbey" has been a cultural touchstone and a ratings and awards magnet for the often-overlooked Public Broadcasting System. It gave PBS political currency when its budgets came under intense scrutiny, but more importantly it put the public broadcaster on the stage with the biggest players in the business.

"Masterpiece" made deals with deep-pocket companies Netflix and Amazon to stream their shows after the initial runs on PBS. Every show from "The Colbert Report" to "Saturday Night Live" was having its way with "Downton" as it became the most buzzy show on television.

"It was a gift from the TV gods for all of us," says "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "We were suddenly up there playing with the big boys. And it was a tremendous boost to both 'Masterpiece' and PBS, because it got more people watching all our shows."

The halo effect brought more viewers and more revenue through pledges and streaming deals. Even government support grew. "No one wanted to be the person who killed 'Downtown,'" Kerger says.

As for PBS, it quickly latched on to the shooting star to promote other series.

"While it was happening, we tried to maximize the opportunity of being back in cultural references where we hadn't been in a while. We we made a deeper investment in drama," Kerger says. "'Downton' gave us the resources to make some leaps, like trying an American drama ['Mercy Street'] - not to replace 'Downton' but to try bold moves. …

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