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PBS, Masterpiece Chiefs Contemplate Life After 'Downton'

The producers of Downton Abbey revealed Thursday that the upcoming sixth season of the show will be its last. Downton was a landmark piece of television for its U.S. broadcaster PBS and producer Masterpiece, drawing unprecedented audiences for a public-television show. The most recent fifth season, which ended in March, averaged 12.9 million total viewers in Nielsen live-plus-seven numbers

But news of the show’s impending demise had been widely anticipated since NBC announced in January at the TCA winter press tour that it would move ahead with plans for a new drama from Downton creator Julian Fellowes. At that same tour, Masterpiece previewed several upcoming U.K. dramas, including Wolf Hall, Poldark and Indian Summer, and PBS announced plans to develop a Civil War drama with producer Ridley Scott—the public broadcaster’s first American drama in 10 years.

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger and Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton spoke with B&C about Downton’s impact and what happens after it ends.

For PBS and for Masterpiece, what has the significance of this show been?

Eaton: It’s been transformative for Masterpiece. We are a series going into its 45th season, and we are currently the No. 1 show on PBS. All the ratings for [non-Downton Masterpiece shows] are now 25 to 30 percent higher. It has definitely increased the size of audience. There definitely is a buzz about Masterpiece that there might not have been six, seven years ago. We have attracted two loyal underwriters, Ralph Lauren and Viking River Cruises, and Paula has asked us to program 20 more hours of shows, British drama, on Sunday nights. It has been a very, very much appreciated game changer for us.

Kerger: For PBS in general, we’ve always been a destination for a number of people on Sunday night for this kind of drama. But a series like Downton has brought people back to public broadcasting that perhaps haven’t watched in a while or just forgot about what we bring to the public. When you look at our audiences on Sunday nights, the non-Downton audience is up 25%, and when you look at our audiences throughout the week, they’ve also grown. Downton has encouraged some people to sample, in a way that I think they hadn’t before.

Who is the audience that Downton brought in that wasn’t there before?
Kerger: The thing that’s been interesting about Downton is that it’s multigenerational. We tend on Sunday nights to skew more female, slightly older. There’s a lot of men watching DowntonAbbey. Sometime they’re a little shy in admitting it. The other thing is that as I travel around the country visiting stations and talking to people, the one consistent thing that people have commented to me is that it is one of the few programs that families view together.

Eaton: I think this is exactly what Masterpiece should be and what PBS should be. It can be something you do with your family Sunday night at 9 o’clock. You can all get on the couch and watch together. You can tweet about it. It can be a watercooler event. And it can appeal to people who like to watch television differently, time-shift it.

When did you know that this coming season would be the last?

Eaton: Over the last year, people have been attuned to Julian and Julian’s thinking that yes, it’s time to wrap this up. It was very much a creative decision rather than a financially driven decision or any pressure from [U.K. broadcaster] ITV or PBS. We’ve known specifically for a number of months.

[Executive producer] Gareth Naeme said earlier today that he didn’t feel pressure from PBS and ITV to keep the show going without Julian Fellowes, but that PBS and ITV would have certainly liked the show to continue. Paula, did you express to the producers that if the show could keep going, you would like it to?

Kerger: Look, I think we’re very respectful of what brought this project to us. The fact is that this has been the creation of these two individuals [Fellowes and Naeme]. It is most unusual in that Julian writes every word. It’s hard to imagine doing a project where this isn’t living in his mind. I think of course, if they would have wanted to go on with the series, we would love to have the series.

How has the distribution model for the show evolved since it premiered?

Kerger: Obviously, when it premiered, more people were watching it as a linear broadcast against the schedule. Obviously we’ve seen a shift. People can watch it via television. They can watch it on their iPad and stream it from their station site. They can watch it on demand. They can watch it over the top through Amazon Prime. So obviously the way that people have watched it has changed.

How did the success of the show impact PBS’ strategy for digital viewing?

Kerger: In season five, we had just over 12.5 million streams of whole episodes, which was a 13% increase over the prior year. We watched it continue to accelerate. We have been seeing across all of our work, particularly for projects like this that are multi-part—we saw it very much with The Roosevelts in the fall—that the streaming element is huge for catch-up viewing as well as just a destination for people to watch. The people that are relying on streaming tend to be younger, tend to be more diverse. We’re really interested in connecting to those people.

How do you apply what you learned from Downton’s success to future development?

Eaton: The thing I always say about what Julian has done with Downton is that it’s a good-hearted program. I think that is unique. When you look around other returning series in British television and American television, they’re often about very troubled, dark, conflicted characters. I think the fact that there was such an appetite for this in this country and all over the world says that there is a certain hunger, not for a sappy soap opera, but for something that speaks better to our better nature.

Paula, how are you applying the lessons from Downton to the American-produced Civil War drama you’re developing, and did knowing that Downton would be coming to a close soon set you down the path toward that series?

Kerger: The thing that I loved about Downton Abbey was that it was about learning a part of our history as well as the fact that you really want compelling characters. The Civil war series that we’re working on is absolutely rooted in historic fact. That is an area that is very much a public-broadcasting area. And it’s really interesting and compelling, and it is a family story. So it has the same types of elements that will make that hopefully as resonant with the audience.