PBS strikes gold with Brit hits

'Masterpiece' programs play to younger viewers

In the past, shrieking done in the presence of PBS content has generally been reserved for toddlers watching “Sesame Street.” But in a New York City theater in early May, cries of delight were coming from twentysomething (and up) female fans gathered for a sneak screening of “Masterpiece’s” “Sherlock.” Ten thousand requests had poured in for the 400 seats available, and fans ended up coming from several time zones away to watch 35 minutes of a TV show most had already seen on illegal Internet streams.

“I haven’t seen fandom like that since the Beatles,” laughed “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton, who was on hand for the screening with the show’s creator Steven Moffat, producer Sue Vertue and star Benedict Cumberbatch. “It took us all by surprise.”

The question is, can the network turn that kind of excitement into a business model?

“We have a very large audience that’s under 5, and then a very large older audience,” says PBS CEO and president Paula Kerger. “And in between, we have a large audience of people who watch public television once in a while during the year.”

But rebranding efforts planned in 2006 and implemented in 2008 on both the network and the 40-year-old series “Masterpiece” appear to finally be bearing significant fruit. PBS wanted to attract younger viewers, who rarely donate but attract sponsor dollars and, hopefully, get hooked and eventually send money. At the same time, it wanted to avoid alienating its core viewers, who are older and ideally have cash to donate. It was a fine line to walk.

“We started looking at pieces that would reach a wider audience and that would touch the legacy of a public broadcasting show,” Kerger says. “It comes down to finding the best films out there and putting a schedule around them that’s organized properly. And then we got lucky.”

Or more to the point, it got “Downton Abbey” from Carnival Films and U.K. broadcaster ITV. The period miniseries, which won an Emmy and became an unlikely fixture in the cultural zeitgeist last year, added “cool” to the reputation of a pubcaster otherwise known for being earnest, educational and a bit stuffy. “Downton” wrapped up its second season in February, growing its young female viewers by more than 100%, and its young male viewers by about 70% over the average “Masterpiece” offering in the 18-34 and 35-49 demographics. “Sherlock’s” season-two premiere numbers were notably higher than PBS usually gets in primetime, averaging 3.2 million viewers, not including those viewing through online streaming, DVRs or replays.

And there’s been a ripple effect on other PBS programming — “Nova” is up 47% in year-to-year ratings, and the overall audience for Wednesday night science content is up about 78%, Kerger says. Eaton adds that the first “Masterpiece” to air following “Downton’s” second season finale was “Great Expectations,” which, she says, delivered the highest number of viewers for any PBS Dickens telecast. It was viewed by an average 2.9 million viewers, the highest rated Dickens broadcast in recent years.

Well-crafted Ken Burns documentaries aside, it’s been a long time since PBS made such an impact with its programming choices. Moreover, “Sherlock” comes with a built-in audience of sorts, thanks to Moffat, the showrunner for the “Doctor Who” reboot (who’s aided by co-executive producer/writer on both shows, Mark Gatiss). “Sherlock” and “Downton” have a contemporary feel that attracts audiences accustomed to the style of storytelling they see on shows like “Mad Men”: “Sherlock” with its contempo antihero and glossy feel, and “Abbey,” which, despite its first two seasons spanning 1912-1920, is infused with a 21st century sociopolitical spirit, not to mention a highly attractive cast. “That appeals to young audiences, who might normally find this genre stuffy or slow,” acknowledges “Downton” executive producer Gareth Neame. “We have the hallmarks of a modern contemporary fast-paced show, but we’re doing it with the high production values and dialogue you’d expect from high-end historical dramas.”

But the pubcaster isn’t relying on the shows alone to make an impact with younger viewers. It’s also focusing on social media, connecting shows to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, featuring live chats with cast members and canned interviews with stars. It’s plugged in at Google+ and GetGlue with content add-ons like virtual stickers and “check-ins” to stimulate interest. Viewers have responded by creating their own fan pages, screening parties and unlicensed ancillary merchandise

But there’s a downside to courting younger viewers. For one thing, they’re less likely to watch a series live, and while many may catch streaming episodes on the PBS website, a large number stream on Netflix, gorge on DVDs, or just lose patience and watch torrented streams from England early, since the shows can take months to travel across the Pond. And having captured a younger audience, PBS still has to find a way to shake coins out of their pockets.

Michael Sexton a 21-year-old from Atlanta, Ga., who gathers with his friends for “Sherlock” parties, says that while “I am much more inclined to look through the list of PBS shows and pay more attention to ‘Masterpiece’ especially” now that he’s hooked, he can’t afford to donate. He does hope to send money in the future when he isn’t a “poor college student.”

Then there’s the bigger question of just what PBS is becoming in the 21st century. Supported only by contributions and sponsors, it simply can’t compete with broadcast or cable networks on their own ground. Additionally, with government funding drying up, the network mandate to provide educational material for the public good seems decreasingly relevant. “Sherlock” and “Downton” are well-made shows, but their educational elements take a distant back-seat to entertainment value.

“It’s a nice spin to say a couple of PBS programs are on the climb,” says Robert K. Avery, co-author of “History of Public Broadcasting,” “but it’s a miniscule drop in the bucket. Everyone I talk to recognizes that there is a systemic problem.”

In other words, while PBS is, for the moment, riding an unusual crest of popularity; whether this translates into a long-term success remains to be seen. The pubcaster certainly knows where its top shows are coming from. It is looking across the Pond in hopes of finding the next big British crossover hit — this fall, “Call the Midwife” will make it to American shores — and Burns has a new four-hour documentary on the Dust Bowl scheduled to air Nov. 18 and 19.

Overall, Avery thinks the attempt to get more young people involved makes sense.

“From a marketing standpoint, PBS is doing the best it can,” he says. “The strategy is a good one; hopefully they can sustain it long enough to get youth support that appreciates the value of public broadcasting in a democracy. That’s where the lifeblood is.”