As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary of ravaging the globe and disrupting workflows, PBS is coming into 2021 strong with a robust slate for what network president and CEO Paula Kerger calls one of its “brand-defining programs”: “Masterpiece.”

“When you ask people what they think about when they hear ‘PBS,’ many people will say ‘Masterpiece’ and in fact consistently it’s one of the most popular programs from an audience size standpoint on public television,” says Kerger. “A lot of people plan their Sunday nights around watching ‘Masterpiece’ live. In this era of on-demand, the fact that people think of ‘Masterpiece’ as not only a lovely viewing experience, but more of an event also speaks to the place that it holds in our schedule.”

Kicking off the new year with “Elizabeth Is Missing” on Jan. 3, Glenda Jackson’s first “Masterpiece” project since “Elizabeth R” in 1972, and moving into a new flagship series, “All Creatures Great and Small” on Jan. 10, “Masterpiece” is set to deliver almost a dozen titles throughout the year, also including the highly anticipated returns of “Baptiste” and “Grantchester.”

As “Masterpiece” marks its 50th anniversary this year, the world certainly welcomes the escapism that its
(often-period) dramas provide. The show’s longevity and importance to public TV is underscored by the fact that PBS itself just passed its 50th anniversary a few months ago.

Because turning around series with such high production values often takes 18 months, the team behind
“Masterpiece” works a few years in advance to secure titles and plan where to slot them in the schedule. This, along with executive producer Susanne Simpson’s own self-described “paranoia,” allowed “Masterpiece” to have almost a dozen programs ready for air in 2021, despite the pandemic.

When film and TV production was hastily shut down by the coronavirus threat in March, Simpson sprang into
action, she recalls, getting on the phone with “every producer, every distributor we knew to find out what programs were available. And I was lucky I did because it took some other companies a month to realize they weren’t going to have their programs delivering in time.”

Kerger points to the relationships cultivated over the past half-century as being essential to maintaining the quality as well as the volume of content on the slate.

“Where ‘Masterpiece’ as a series is especially strong is that we’re drawn more towards historical pieces or pieces that are based on literature, and we are also drawn towards really capturing the range of the human experience,” she says.

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Sofia Helin portrays Crown Princess Märtha opposite Kyle MacLachlan as President Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Atlantic Crossing.” Courtesy of Julie Vrabelova/Beta

“Masterpiece” (formerly “Masterpiece Theater”) launched Jan. 10, 1971, with the BBC’s “The Churchills” starring John Neville and Susan Hampshire. Produced in the late 1960s, it was a look back at the period from the 1670s to the early 1700s to contextualize the British political realm. From there, “Masterpiece” delivered dozens of titles that spanned real-world people and events (such as “Elizabeth R” in 1972 and “Victoria” in 2017), great literature (1977’s “I, Claudius” and 2008’s “The Complete Jane Austen,” for example), police dramas (“Prime Suspect” and “Sherlock”) and even original works (Julian Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey”). The “back-and-forth” between adaptations and more original works built a “variety in a trustworthy way,” says executive producer-at-large Rebecca Eaton. But the showcase has always centered on character-driven stories.

“It’s watching someone, or a group of people, establish who they are, where they are, and watch them head into a few storms, and how do they handle them? How do they resolve them, how do they survive them and how do they come out the other end? Those are emotional journeys [and] that’s what interests our audience,” she adds.

The “Masterpiece” audience includes many awards-nomination committee members and voters. Over the years, series aired under the brand have picked up 175 BAFTAs, 83 Primetime Emmys, 18 Peabodys, seven Golden Globes and even two Academy Award nominations.

“What hasn’t changed is we set a pretty high artistic bar in terms of writing, production design, editing, music, costumes,” says Eaton. “And the settings have been the hidden character. You can walk across the Moors or be within the small salon or country house. It’s a kind of time travel show, in that sense.”

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“Downton Abbey’s” five years as a part of “Masterpiece” netted 15 Emmys, three Golden Globes and two BAFTA Awards for PBS. Courtesy of Nick briggs

Fifty years in, “Masterpiece” is also still able to find unique relationships and content to share with its audience. This spring it will premiere “Atlantic Crossing,” about the friendship between the Norwegian crown Princess Märtha (Sofia Helin) and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan) after she and her young children fled the Nazis in their home country. The project is a co-production between Cinenord and Beta Film and will tell its story partially in English and partially in Norwegian, with subtitles.

The opportunity to include “Atlantic Crossing” in the “Masterpiece” slate was borne out of the pandemic, specifically the team wondering if they would have some of the usual British dramas available to them at that time of year.

That expansion is indicative of the way they are thinking about the future of the brand, Simpson says.

“What we’re doing differently now is that we are investing in script development for shows that we would like to see on ‘Masterpiece,’” she continues. “And what’s been interesting is that we’re also funding our shows differently than we have in the past.”

Because “Masterpiece” is still focused on tentpole costume dramas, which BBC and ITV don’t do a lot of these days, the “Masterpiece” team is working with partners across the pond as well, from BritBox U.K. to discussions with Starzplay. The upcoming “Around the World in 80 Days With David Tennant,” Simpson says, is “funded completely with European broadcasters.”

“Masterpiece” also counts Viking River Cruises as its loyal corporate sponsor, and relies on the “Masterpiece” Trust, to which viewers can donate directly.

“There are many different funding models now that we’re exploring, and many different partners,” Simpson
says. “The trust has really given us an investment pool of money now to do what we’re doing, which is the development and funding of shows. So, we’re very fortunate that in some ways what ‘Masterpiece’ has built up over 50 years, is a very loyal audience. And that loyal audience is now making a huge difference in keeping ‘Masterpiece’ going for the future.”