If watching the sensation that is Downton Abbey was the first time you tuned in to PBS since outgrowing Sesame Street, you’re not alone. Chances are, you’ve stuck around to watch more, and not only have PBS executives noticed, so have Emmy voters.
The network is up for 25 different Primetime Emmys next month, and though not all are for Downton, the Masterpiece-airing juggernaut does have 12 of the noms. Still, the show’s incredible popularity has had a ripple effect for both the program on which it airs—once Masterpiece Theatre, the show re-branded a few years back and is now simply Masterpiece—and the network as a whole, which as seen its ratings go up five percent across the board in the last year alone.
“We call it the ‘Downton Glow,’” says Beth Hoppe, the network’s chief programming executive and general manager for audience programming. “There’s a definite halo effect it’s had on the whole network. At a time when so many other networks are struggling, our numbers are rising. We’re also up 11 percent among the 18 – 39 year old demographic and out rate most of the other cable networks.”
It’s easy to forget how much of an Emmy factory the network was before Downton came along, but truth is, both PBS and Masterpiece have been big Emmy players for many years. Masterpiece alone is responsible for 65 Emmy wins in its 42 years on the air; although Downton is its first series to be nominated in the Drama category. All previous Masterpiece entries have come in the Miniseries category.
“We used to dominate the Miniseries category,” says Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton. “Especially after the major networks made fewer and fewer of them, we were in good shape. Then, when the Miniseries and TV Movie categories combined, HBO was much stiffer competition.”
In fact, Downton began in the Miniseries/Movie category in 2011, its first season. The ITV-Masterpiece co-production won six awards that first year, the top prize for the show itself. It only shifted to the Drama category the next year, where it won three more, including Maggie Smith’s trophy for Best Supporting Actress.
“We have been in the game for a long time,” Eaton continues, “but while the networks pour money into their Emmy campaigns, we put none into any campaigns until Downton. So, when we win, we like to think it’s on merit. It’s a real David vs. Goliath thing. One year, The Lost Prince beat out HBO’s Empire Falls, and the people at HBO were shocked.”
But a show like Downton Abbey, a monster hit that becomes a real pop culture talking point, certainly doesn’t happen very often. And, just like anything else, it has a limited lifespan. The show’s fourth season airs in Britain this fall and in the US in January, and word circulated this week that the entire cast has signed for a fifth season (something on which Eaton “couldn’t possibly comment”); but still, it’s only a matter of time before the series comes to its inevitable conclusion.
So what does a program like Masterpiece and a network like PBS do to prepare for the time when that new cornerstone of high ratings and internet commentary is no longer available?
“We are constantly developing new material,” Eaton explains. “For a long time, British producers and production companies came to us because we were the only game in town. That’s changed somewhat, but I am still catching pitches, listening to ideas, reading books and first episode scripts, traveling to England to meet with writers and producers, and so on. We have to fill between 40 and 50 hours of television each year, which generally comes down to between eight and 10 titles. This year, Downton gave us 10 hours, as did Mr. Selfridge. But we never wait until a series ends to start a new one. Selfridge is a perfect example of that.”
While the networks pour money into their Emmy campaigns,
we put none into any campaigns until Downton.
So, when we win, we like to think it’s on merit.
A star vehicle for multiple Emmy winner Jeremy Piven, Mr. Selfridge was only nominated for a single Emmy this year (for original score), but it was critically acclaimed and is already filming its second season. While the success of Downton might not have been entirely responsible for Selfridge getting green lit, it certainly didn’t hurt.
“You can’t plan for a hit like Downton, but you can enjoy it,” Hoppe says with a laugh. “It caught us by surprise. A hit of that magnitude comes along once in a great while, but after it ends, we would love to explore an American drama, something homegrown. Overall, we work hard to keep an active pipeline going.”
PBS has a steady stream of original programming and tends to schedule shows with like themes on given nights. British historical programming tends to precede Materpiece on Sundays, as do other British dramas, like Call the Midwife. Antiques Roadshow (nominated for the 11th time in the Best Reality Non-Competition Program category) is often paired with POV and other educational fare on Mondays; Tuesdays are dedicated to history and features Frontline, the long-running investigative reporting show; while Wednesdays focuses on natural history and NOVA, which has been on the air since 1974.
But still, there are successful shows and there are successful shows, and it’s not only impossible to predict when they are going to happen, neither is it necessarily a piece of cake to capitalize on it when it does.
PBS has been the center of public fascination before. Helen Mirren became famous to American audiences with her portrayal of Inspector Jane Tennison on the Prime Suspect series, which also ran on Masterpiece. She earned six nominations for playing the character and won twice. Likewise, Ken Burns’ massive 1990 documentary, The Civil War, was a total sensation and won a pair of Emmys, for good measure. Plenty of shows caught audiences’ fancy over the years, like I, Claudius, The Jewel in the Crown, and Upstairs, Downstairs, which could easily be described as a precursor for Downton, but certainly not on its scale.
Suddenly, people are tuning in to PBS and they’re staying, and Hoppe acknowledges that Downton Abbey has a great deal to do with it. But why? What is it about this show that has people so bananas? And, for that matter, how to explain the 60 percent increase in viewership between seasons two and three? Part of it is the storytelling, sure, but at least part of the credit has to go to the times in which we’re living.
“I think it’s social media and the availability of earlier seasons online—on Amazon, iTunes, over the air—for catch up viewing,” Hoppe says. “I think both those things made the hit that is Downton possible. Also, global media. It’s a hit in Britain, the buzz starts when it airs over there, the buzz continues, it grows. So I think those three elements have made a real change in our industry and has made it possible for Downton to be the size hit that it is, and why I think we were able to capture such an enormous increase between seasons two and three.”
These days, you can’t have big success without everyone involved getting a piece of the action, which makes hit shows increasingly expensive to produce—a major problem for an operation like PBS, which is famous for never really having any money. To wit, Hoppe admits that the network is vastly short on resources and has “taken out exactly one ad” for its Emmy nominees in the past.
“It’s really all about the deal,” Eaton explains. “Every deal we make with talent or with the creators assumes a runaway hit, even if it doesn’t turn out that way. You just see how far you can protect yourself and still be fair.”
With its development system in place, and the awareness of a suddenly interested viewing public, it’s not outlandish to think that, even after Downton Abbey is long off the air, PBS will still be a player come Emmy time. Not only that, but the next time a PBS show catches popular attention, folks will tune in to watch, and when it’s over, be that much more likely to stick around.[Photo Credit: Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)]