PBS doubles down on Brits for summer

With 'Downton' in abeyance, two new series will help bridge gap

Amid the popularity of “Downton Abbey” and the imminent arrival of the London-set Olympic Games, PBS has topped its summer schedule with two new Brit-flavored series.

“Queen & Country” will offer a four-part look at the life of Queen Elizabeth II in the wake of the diamond jubilee celebration of her 60 years as British monarch. The program debuts July 1 and is hosted by Trevor McDonald.

“Michael Wood’s Story of England,” another four-parter that will begin two nights later, examines 2,000-years of British history through the lives of the small town of Kibworth, Leicstershire.

“British programming has always had a strong home on PBS,” pubcaster prexy and CEO Paula Kerger told Variety. “We actually have been working on both of these series because of the Olympics and the jubilee, and the fact that ‘Downton Abbey’ has been a phenomenon, it all nicely compliments each other.”

The widespread success of “Downton” has brought PBS rare pop culture cachet, and Kerger said it has been enjoyable even if it has overshadowed other PBS strengths, such as an uptick of ratings for “Nova.”

“Our programs are all doing well and not just ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” Kerger said, “but it is fun, I have to tell you, to be a parody on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”

Coincidentally, it was announced this week that the British import that most expected would be the biggest success for PBS, the revival of “Upstairs Downstairs,” will cease production in Britain after two seasons. PBS will air the final installment in the fall.

“Of all the programs that have been on public TV, this was the one that we heard from most people that they would love to see again,” Kerger said. “It’s an iconic program on public television. ‘Downton Abbey’ we were interested in … but no one guessed that it would be the phenomenon that it was.

“I’m glad that we were able to bring forward two seasons of ‘Upstairs Downstairs.’ I think that it’s a wonderful project. If it had continued, I would have been happy to bring more seasons forward, but these projects have a life of their own.”

Meanwhile, a third new series from PBS this summer will be “Market Warriors,” premiering July 16 from “Antiques Roadshow” producer WGBH Boston. Fred Willard will serve as offscreen host of the program, which scours flea markets around the country for vintage valuables.

PBS will also segue from its Arts Fall Festival of 2011 to an Arts Summer Festival beginning June 29, offering a series of Friday performance events that will kick off with “Mariachi High” and also include “John Leguizamo’s Tales from a Ghetto Klown.” The finale, after seven weeks, will be a “Great Performances: Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration” on Aug. 10, with a bevy of artists including Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Peter Serkin and James Taylor.

Among returning series, “POV” will begin its 25th season June 21, while “Masterpiece Mystery” will air three new episodes of Kenneth Branagh starrer “Wallender” beginning July 1 and then “Endeavour,” the prequel of the “Inspector Morse” series, July 22.

PBS also plans its annual “A Capitol Fourth” on July 4 and full primetime coverage of the Republican and Democratic Conventions.

With the presidential campaign moving into its final stages, Kerger realizes the time might again come in which funding for PBS is caught in the partisan crossfire and characterized the pubcaster’s state of mind as “uncertain but hopeful.” She noted that philanthropy has risen slightly with some building confidence in the economy, but a number of stations have had issues with state funding and that the next federal outlay is a wait-and-see affair.

“We’re certainly not in the position of a couple years ago, when the words I would have used are ‘very worried,'” Kerger said. “We’re working very hard to look for other (ways) to bring resources in, and we’ll continue to work on making our case as succinctly and clearly as possible for continued government support.”

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