The PBS series, Downton Abbey premieres this week, and it’s one in a long line of very popular programs that the network has produced. How do they find shows like Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Brideshead Revisited, and Poldark? What goes into choosing which programs make it on the air? And how has the format for “Masterpiece” affected commercial network programming through the years? We talk to the producer of the series and also to a TV expert about these issues.
- Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer, the “Masterpiece” series for PBS out of WGBH, Boston, author of the book, Making Masterpiece
- Robert Thompson, Professor of Television and Popular Culture, the Newhouse School, Syracuse University
Links for Additional Info:
15-01 Making Masterpiece
Gary Price: It’s the first week of the new year, and to millions of television watchers here in the states, that means one thing: Downton Abbey is back! The blockbuster PBS drama has captured the imaginations of people all across the country who look forward each season to a new chapter in the Crawley family saga. But this isn’t the first PBS drama that Americans have fallen in love with; it’s just the latest behind Brideshead Revisited, Prime Suspect, Upstairs, Downstairs, Masterpiece, a raft of Jane Austen adaptations, and many more shows through the years. What is it that makes British drama on Masterpiece so popular? And has it had any impact on our own, homegrown, television industry? We asked two people who have their fingers on the pulse of American TV. First, Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece for PBS out of WGBH, Boston. Eaton is also the author of the book, Making Masterpiece, about her 25 years behind the scenes seeking out many of the shows American audiences will see on Masterpiece. Eaton says that one reason we love British drama …is because it’s British drama!
Rebecca Eaton: I’ve always said that Anglophilia is not a dirty word. To love all things English is a common disease that a lot of people have. I had it as a child. I loved all things English. I don’t know why. Something about the scale of English life, the reverence for good writing. Their history of drama, all the way back to Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, their reverence for their own past, preserving their buildings, their traditions. I think they love their own country in such a way that it translates.
Gary Price: Choosing the shows we see is a time-consuming endeavor, and Eaton says that when she took over the job in from the late Joan Wilson, she was pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.
Rebecca Eaton: I started in radio, I moved into local television and then I slowly moved into television drama, but truly when I started this job in 1985 I really didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the secret. And I kind of talk about that a little bit in the book.
Gary Price: She says that the way she picks shows is subjective, and a lot different than how it’s done on commercial TV.
Rebecca Eaton: Commercial television stations and movie companies, Harvey Weinstein do focus groups. You know they’ll screen things for an audience and then ask them to fill out cards and answer questions, and ours is very subjective, gut reactions. More than half, no 75% of what we do now, are projects based on scripts. In other words, all I have is one episode of a ten-part series to decide whether or not to co-produce it. So what that requires is being able to read a script and make the television show in your head. I mean you kind of have to imagine, from just words on a page, how this is going to look and how it’s going to play without knowing who the actors are going to be. That’s something you learn to do in this job, because I read hundreds of scripts.
Gary Price: You can imagine what a show like Pride and Prejudice might look from reading the script, but what about the new Sherlock? That drama travels at break-neck speed, showing Sherlock’s thought processes as he puts together clues.
Rebecca Eaton: I have to say I couldn’t in that case. It was so different, the execution of it was so different from what had been of the page, and I’ll tell you the story behind Sherlock. It was pitched to us as an idea to do a contemporary Sherlock, and I thought, uh, well…I guess. I don’t know, it didn’t really appeal to me. Then, there was someone in our office who knew Doctor Who, the series, the British BBC series Doctor Who. And she said Steven Moffat is writing the new Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat is the writer of this Sherlock, it’s going to be amazing. So based on her feedback, her take on the creative people behind it, I thought it was worth taking a chance. And then they did make a pilot. I have to say — they made a pilot of Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and five minutes in my jaw dropped. And I thought this is a whole other leap in television — we have to do this.
Gary Price: With the success of these limited series that return year after year, have American TV networks and cable taken a page from British television drama? Robert Thompson thinks that we’re seeing more drama on our networks that’s Masterpiece-like than we did in the days when Columbo and The Waltons were popular. Thompson is a professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Robert Thompson: The gap between Masterpiece Theater and what people have access to on other channels has narrowed. Let’s remember that when we were watching Masterpiece Theater during the Claudius era what was on American television was completely different. It was designed for an enormous mass audience; it was designed not to offend anyone. Now of course we’ve got things on FX and AMC and HBO and Showtime, which appeal to an even smaller audience than what Masterpiece Theater did once upon a time. Mad Men for example, you know gets an audience of 2 million on some nights and it won all of these awards and it was on the cover of magazines and all of the rest of it. Sherlock now happens to be under the umbrella of Masterpiece Theater and happens to play on PBS, but its one of those shows that has the same appeal to a lot of people that shows on HBO or AMC have. So that gap has shifted.
Gary Price: Thompson says that the Masterpiece style of adapting a book such as Pride and Prejudice was not on the minds of American network programmers, in part because that kind of show couldn’t make them as much money as an on-going series that ran each year from October to May.
Robert Thompson: The British system was amenable to the idea of coming up with programming that had a beginning, a middle and an end, the more novel based idea, novel as in a book novel. American television was almost hostile to that idea in the beginning, because the notion was you created a series and therefore you had a timeslot. And people, it became part of their habit that they knew that this show was on Sunday nights, this show was on Thursday nights, and you tried to then have that go as long as it possibly could. Which not only, everybody knew where it was so it was an advertisement for itself, so they watched every week, but also it built up the value in syndicated reruns where the big money is in fact made in television. So it could have a show go for more than one hundred episodes it had all of this ability to continue to make profit after it was over.
Gary Price: In the 1970s, American TV networks tried the mini-series, and many of them were extremely popular. However, Thompson says they had a limited life span and that meant less overall revenue for the networks. These days, though, they’ve combined the limited series with the traditional format to create a new type of program that can live on from year to year.
Robert Thompson: I think it is true that it was in some ways inspired by some of the British programming. We didn’t start seeing the really big mini-series here until the late seventies, Roots and all those mini-series that Richard Chamberlain started, Shogun and those kinds of programs. And we’re getting back into those now but in a different kind of way. I think in some ways American Horror Story is a mini-series and a series hybrid. It keeps coming back under the same title but each new season is a completely different entity. That’s also true of things like True Detective and Fargo which is going to be coming back, so it’s more of a hybrid.
Gary Price: Not only has US television moved toward the British style of programming, Rebecca Eaton says that the actors from Masterpiece shows are in demand by American TV and film producers.
Rebecca Eaton: Since the success of Masterpiece and Downton Abbey, there is a lot more interest from cable companies for British drama. These actors are the hottest things around. Now whether it’s Eddie Redmayne or Carey Mulligan or Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, these young guys and women who have shown up in television drama that we’ve done are suddenly in huge demand for feature films. So British drama is very cool at the moment or very hot. And you will see things like Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel that’s actually shot in New Zealand. That’s a co-production with the BBC, or Netflix is doing British drama. So I think there is a huge resurgence of interest in British drama maybe because of Downton.
Gary Price: Many of the most popular series on Masterpiece have continued for many seasons – though not necessarily showing every year. What makes a series like Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, Poirot with David Suchet and the Inspector Lewis series keep coming back? Does their popularity here in the states have anything to do with it?
Rebecca Eaton: It has some influence but probably the biggest influence is the actor’s willingness to do it. In all of the instances you mentioned, and even in Sherlock, all of the broadcasters all over the world want to do more, and it’s a question of the actor’s willingness or their schedules. I mean Helen Mirren did some, then she stopped…took a breather came back in Prime Suspect and then did some more. I think the fact that we pick them up and have a huge following can help convince a British actor, well maybe I should this, now I’ve got a huge American following as well that will be good for my career. David Suchet played Poirot for years and years and years, John Thaw played Inspector Morse, I think he retired a year or two before he died and Kevin Whately is still playing Inspector Lewis. It’s hard to do this year after year after year; you can get yourself pigeonholed as a character. On the other hand, if it’s a great character it’s a great job. So those are the pros and cons for some of these actors of continuing in a role.
Gary Price: So what do Masterpiece fans have in store for the near future? Eaton says an old favorite has been re-done and is coming back this year.
Rebecca Eaton: We’re doing a new Poldark, it will be on the air next summer. A brand new interpretation of it set in beautiful Cornwall. Aidan Turner plays Ross Poldark our hero, and he is gorgeous. Set around 1800, the early nineteenth century, in Cornwall, a great love story.
Gary Price: And Downton Abbey? What will become of this blockbuster?
Rebecca Eaton: We’re airing its fifth season in January and its sixth season is in the works.
Gary Price: You can learn how the Masterpiece series began and evolved during the years, and read about how some of your favorite programs came to be, in Rebecca Eaton’s behind the scenes book, Making Masterpiece, available in stores and online. To find out more about Robert Thompson and the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, visit their website at newhouse.syr.edu. You can always learn more about all of our guests on our site at radiohealthjournal.org. I’m Gary Price.
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