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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.






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