You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Misreading PBS’ ‘Downton Abbey’ as a ‘Strategy’

Let’s give the New York Times the benefit of the doubt. Holiday weekend, slow news day, whatever.

But in addition to a profile of TLC’s head of publicity — an occupation that should generally be heard but not pushed into the spotlight — the paper’s media section featured a questionable piece on PBS trying to compete with premium channels, tethered to the upcoming second-season premiere of the scintillating period melodrama “Downton Abbey.”

This is, in fact, a classic case of misreading something after the fact, then allowing execs to conflate an unexpected windfall into a “strategy.”

PBS and “Masterpiece” didn’t set out to justify public broadcasting’s existence by ordering “Downton Abbey.” They simply happened to stumble onto a terrific, compelling program (or programme, if you prefer) that connected with viewers. Now, they are doing what they should do — trying to capitalize on its success by reminding people public television carries certain fare that doesn’t often flourish in the commercial space.

In other words, PBS is like pretty much everyone else in TV: A surprise success dictates strategy, not the other way around. Still, let’s not get carried away: The prospect of public television replicating that success and delivering another showcase with this kind of impact is a complete crapshoot.

“That wasn’t just chance, but an effort to reach a wider audience and really think about how we can make the case to them to continue their support,” PBS Prez-CEO Paula Kerger told the Times. Ah, I see: Now you’re really trying.

Look, feel free to bask in “Downton Abbey’s” glow. But that’s a lot closer to spin — the kind you get from publicists, and that reporters ought to be skeptical about — than truth.






More Voices

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    WGA, Agents Face Tough Issues on New Franchise Pact (Column)

    The Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies are seven weeks away from a deadline that could force film and TV writers to choose between their agents and their union. This is a battle that has been brewing for a year but few in the industry saw coming until a few weeks ago. [...]

  • FX Confronts Streaming Thanks to Disney

    Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

    During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the [...]

  • Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for

    How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

    I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations. But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content