It seemed the entire world mourned the loss of “Downton Abbey,” but perhaps nowhere else was the pain of departure so strongly felt than at PBS.
The leisurely stroll through a more genteel period struck a chord with a wide range of viewers that no one could have expected. At the time PBS opted to pick up “Downton,” which was produced by Carnival Films for ITV in the U.K., the pubcaster was already looking to revive some much-needed interest in its programming by bringing back another British story of the aristocracy and their faithful staff, “Upstairs, Downstairs.” The original was a ratings bonanza, and the commitment to the revival was in place when an offer came for the thematically reminiscent “Downton.”
“There was a moment when it was felt that ‘Downton’ would be too similar [to ‘Upstairs’], and perhaps it wouldn’t work. But it just looked like such a great series, we went with it,” says Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. “Of course, it turned out to be a phenomenon.”
Since its premiere in January 2011, “Downton Abbey” has been a cultural touchstone and a ratings and awards magnet for the often-overlooked Public Broadcasting System. It gave PBS political currency when its budgets came under intense scrutiny, but more importantly it put the public broadcaster on the stage with the biggest players in the business. “Masterpiece” made deals with deep-pocket companies Netflix and Amazon to stream their shows after the initial runs on PBS. Every show from “The Colbert Report” to “Saturday Night Live” was having its way with “Downton” as it became the most buzzy show on television.
“It was a gift from the TV gods for all of us,” says “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton. “We were suddenly up there playing with the big boys. And it was a tremendous boost to both ‘Masterpiece’ and PBS, because it got more people watching all our shows.”
The halo effect brought more viewers and more revenue through pledges and streaming deals. Even government support grew. “No one wanted to be the person who killed ‘Downtown,’” Kerger says.
As for PBS, it quickly latched on to the shooting star to promote other series.
“While it was happening, we tried to maximize the opportunity of being back in cultural references where we hadn’t been in a while. We milked it, and we made a deeper investment in drama,” Kerger says. “’Downton’ gave us the resources to make some leaps, like trying an American drama [‘Mercy Street’] — not to replace ‘Downton’ but to try bold moves.”
“Downton” became the miracle baby for the aging “Masterpiece” franchise. The drama showcase premiered in January 1971. Those 45 years have seen a lot of iconic TV, although few have matched “Downton.” The closest was when PBS aired “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which took home the Emmy for drama series in 1974, 1975, and 1977, as well as other Emmys and Golden Globes.
The incredible popularity of that series incited a frenzy for a spinoff series, which never materialized. Ironically, the 2010 revival, perhaps overshadowed by “Downton,” fizzled out. Likewise, there has been talk about a spinoff of “Downton” or perhaps another series. “We would not try to duplicate it. That would be crazy,” Eaton says. “Unless it was a spinoff and Carson and Mrs. Hughes really did open an inn.”
Eaton then tells her favorite Julian Fellowes story. When the “Downton” creator was a child, he made a batch of delicious chocolate éclairs. Afterward, his mother asked him how he did it and he replied that he really didn’t know. “It’s a bit like that with ‘Downton.’ It’s alchemy. It had a generosity of spirit, beautifully written, and a perfect setting for a time when viewers were looking for that,” Eaton says. “You can try to re-create that, but it’s seldom you can make it all work again.”
Instead, Eaton says “Masterpiece” will continue its goal to present the best of British drama such as this season’s “Churchill’s Secrets” and “Victoria.” And they know that such streaming services as Netflix are hot on their tails. “We have to be nimble. We have to be on things early and we don’t wait as long as we used to,” Eaton says. “Netflix is doing [Queen Elizabeth II drama series] ‘The Crown’ and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. That should have been ours.’There’s enough to go around, but we may not be able to do the most expensive ones like ‘The Crown.’”
Eaton says “Downton” “gave us some shine” and helped with their British partners, who appreciated their reach and upscale audience with an unpaid, commercial-free service. “Lightning struck twice with ‘Masterpiece’: ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and then 40 years later, ‘Downton Abbey,’” says Eaton. “We would be lucky to get another ‘Downton,’ but they just don’t come around all that often. It’s a challenge, but I do love a challenge.”