The word “gamble” might not bring MASTERPIECE immediately to mind but that’s exactly how Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton describes the realities of positioning the show in today’s volatile media world.
At a recent gathering of WGBH’s Ralph Lowell Society, Eaton opened up about how the show is recalibrating after the highs of Downton Abbey; the risks, mistakes, and successes of MASTERPIECE as it tests out “edgier” shows; and her commitment to delivering top-shelf drama to its loyal viewers. The iconic drama series is now approaching its fiftieth year.
Prompted by humorous and provocative questions from Jared Bowen, WGBH Executive Arts Editor, Eaton answered in kind.
“Tell us,” said Bowen, “You did what with Downton Abbey when it first came by?”
Eaton paused, then said: “I passed on it.”
She revealed that she was invited to consider co-producing Downton Abbey at the same time that MASTERPIECE was planning to air BBC’s new show Upstairs, Downstairs, a sequel to the blockbuster 1970s original that followed a British family and its service staff.
“From what I could tell, Downton Abbey looked a lot like that,” Eaton said. The show went on to make the rounds of all the Hollywood studios and the networks. Everyone said no.
But when Eaton heard that Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern had been cast, she changed her mind and made the deal. Downton Abbey became PBS’s most-watched series, rivaling viewership of commercial shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
“It was a huge injection of interest and enthusiasm for public broadcasting,” said Eaton. Stations reported new members, and lapsed members rejoined. “It was a wonderful shock to the system.”
Eaton takes special pride that Downton Abbey became a launching pad for young actors, such as Sophie McShera (“Daisy”) and Michelle Dockery (“Lady Mary”) while also burnishing the reputations of veterans Maggie Smith (“Violet Crawley”) and Hugh Bonneville (“Robert Crawley”). She marveled at MASTERPIECE’s staying power even in the face of seismic shifts in the entertainment industry.
“Part of the gamble is whether or not we’ll get a show. We have to be in the right place at the right time, in order to bid and line up the finances,” she said.
When pursuing new shows for the series, Eaton looks for those that satisfy the show’s core audience—60-somethings—while drawing in younger viewers.
“I like to choose things that push a little,” she said, citing Sherlock, the contemporary version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective.
MASTERPIECE is embracing streaming video as it evolves, she added. “Younger people aren’t watching MASTERPIECE on Sunday nights. They are finding it other ways. And we will meet them there.”
All of this is fine with Eaton.
“Streaming means much more TV for everyone. I think it’s additive for us,” she said, noting that streaming can increase MASTERPIECE’s audience by 40 percent.
If you’d like to attend events like these, WGBH invites you to join the Ralph Lowell Society. MASTERPIECE can be viewed on Sunday nights on television, on pbs.org, and via WGBH Passport, WGBH’s member benefit on-demand video library.