×

‘Masterpiece’ fresh at 40

PBS bellwether adapts without losing core quality

Forty years in and sporting a lineup that includes a revival of the beloved British period drama “Upstairs, Downstairs,” it would appear that PBS’ venerable anthology series “Masterpiece” keeps on keeping on, undaunted by the changes in programming and media, not to mention the presence of Snooki and the Situation at the other end of the proverbial dial.

Look more closely, however, and you’ll see that while “Masterpiece” still trades heavily in costume dramas with a decided stiff-upper-lip sense and sensibility, the long-running show has made a concession or two to middle-age. It’s now just “Masterpiece,” thank you. PBS dropped “Theatre” from the title three years ago, while also splitting the show into three distinct brands — “Masterpiece Classic,” “Masterpiece Mystery!” and “Masterpiece Contemporary,” each with its own host and theme music.

“We had become a bit of the dusty jewel in the crown,” says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of “Masterpiece” for the past 25 years. “People would think, ‘My parents used to watch it. But “Masterpiece Theatre” … that sounds a little too challenging for me.’ So we were losing audience. You approach 40, and you look in the mirror and think, ‘Do I need some work done?’ ”

Since 2008’s nip-tuck, “Masterpiece” has added viewers with its streamlined approach and strong contemporary offerings like the Kenneth Branagh police series “Wallander,” while still maintaining its core audience. This season’s four-episode “Classic” run of ITV’s period British drama “Downton Abbey” was the highest-rated “Masterpiece” program in the past 10 years. Viewership for this month’s return to 165 Eaton Place and the world of “Upstairs, Downstairs” will likely be even higher.

“It’s easy to pigeonhole something as long-running as ‘Masterpiece’ as old-fashioned and smelling of mothballs, but the reality is not quite so simple,” says TV Guide magazine senior critic Matt Roush. “The move to re-brand the franchise by separating the ‘Classic’ adaptations, the popular ‘Mystery’ offerings and the more envelope-pushing ‘Contemporary’ movies has, for me, been a major success and has seemed to raise ‘Masterpiece’s’ game.”

The recent re-branding came after sifting through research that also led the network to increase its presence online through streaming and video-on-demand. Of the 14 million who watched “Downton Abbey” in January, 1 million viewed it online at PBS.org. The network has also created Internet fan pages and discussion groups tailored to its series.

“Instead of bringing people together in families’ living rooms, you’re bringing people together in the social media landscape,” PBS CEO Paula Kerger says. “Watching ‘Masterpiece’ used to direct me to the library. Now you’re able to connect people to a show without regard to geo-graphy.”

But what they’re watching remains little changed from what viewers took in during the show’s inaugural season 40 years ago. “Downton” shared its setting (England), time period (pre-Great War) and mix of characters (aristocrats and their servants) with the first run of “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

“People have a hunger for period drama, and then you add to that our long-running fascination with Britain and particularly British actors, an interest we’ve had a lot longer than ‘Masterpiece’ has been on,” Eaton says. “It’s the quality of the product. It’s ‘The King’s Speech.’ Except, with ‘Masterpiece,’ you don’t have to pay to watch it.”

Which is why, advocates say, “Masterpiece” is a key part of the case for continuing federal funding of public television. Mobil served as the show’s corporate sponsor from 1971 to 2004. PBS has been searching for corporate funding since then, but in the meantime, the network has established the Masterpiece Trust as a way for individuals to give directly to the show.

” ‘Masterpiece’ offers something very special,” says British screenwriter Heidi Thomas, who wrote both installments of the BBC’s period ensemble drama “Cranford” as well as the new “Upstairs, Downstairs.” “I’m a huge fan of American television, but these programs on ‘Masterpiece’ are art with a capital A.”

More from Masterpiece at 40:
‘Masterpiece’ fresh at 40 | Co-creator excited to return ‘Upstairs’ | ‘Masterpiece’ producer answers the call | ‘Master’-ful moments

More TV

  • What to Watch on TV This

    What to Watch on TV This Week: ‘Picard' Premieres and 'Shrill' Returns

    Welcome back to Tune In: our weekly newsletter offering a guide to the best of the week’s TV. Each week, Variety’s TV team combs through the week’s schedule, selecting our picks of what to watch and when/how to watch them. This week, “Star Trek: Picard” beams into existence on CBS All Access and “Shrill” returns [...]

  • SAG Awards 2020: What You Didn't

    SAG Awards 2020: From Charlize Theron to 'Parasite,' What You Didn't See on TV

    Brad Pitt made a crack about his marriages. Robert De Niro got political. And Jennifer Aniston talked about appearing in a commercial for Bob’s Big Boy. Those were just some of thing that happened on stage at the SAG Awards that were broadcast on TNT/TBS on Sunday night. However, Variety was inside the Shrine Auditorium [...]

  • Edges Unknown

    TCB, Cineflix, All3Media Announce Sales Ahead of NATPE Miami

    Miami’s NATPE market kicks off on Tuesday, but deal announcements are already landing. London-based TCB Media Rights has sold 130 hours of content to Latin America, Cineflix and National Geographic Latin America closed a deal for four titles, and Discovery Latin America picked up popular makeover format “10 Years Younger” from All3Media. TCB’s 130 Hours [...]

  • U.K. Broadcaster Channel 5 Readies Thomas

    U.K. Broadcaster Channel 5 Readies Thomas Markle Documentary

    ViacomCBS-backed U.K. broadcaster Channel 5 will air a 90-minute documentary on Meghan Markle’s father Thomas Markle. Markle and her husband Prince Harry sparked a global media frenzy earlier this month with their decision not to continue as senior members of the British Royal Family. Buckingham Palace announced that the couple are to lose their royal [...]

  • Tony Hall BBC Director General

    BBC Boss Tony Hall Lands at U.K.'s National Gallery

    BBC director general Tony Hall has been appointed chair of the board of trustees of the National Gallery. The executive, who has served on the Gallery’s board since November, takes over as chair from Sir John Kingman, who has been interim chair since Hannah Rothschild stood down from the role in September. Hall said: “The [...]

  • Fox TV Stations Greenlight 'Central Ave'

    Fox TV Stations Greenlight 'Central Ave' From Will Packer, Debmar-Mercury

    Fox Television Stations has ordered the weekly entertainment news magazine “Central Ave,” which hails from prolific film and TV producer Will Packer and Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury. Debmar-Mercury and Will Packer Media will produce two half-hour shows per week of “Central Ave,” which tackles pop culture and other topics from a “socially conscious and diverse lens,” per [...]

  • Frontrunners Emerge As BBC's Tony Hall

    Frontrunners Emerge as BBC Boss Tony Hall Set to Leave Broadcasting Behind

    As the U.K. industry reacts to news of Tony Hall’s intention to depart the BBC this July, top-level executives including Charlotte Moore and Tim Davie as well as external contenders such as Channel 4’s Alex Mahon are beginning to emerge. Variety understands that Lord Hall, who has headed the BBC for seven years as director [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content