‘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