‘Downton Abbey’ and How PBS Got Cool

Downton AbbeyPatton Oswalt obsessively live tweets it from his weekly viewing parties. Katy Perry is using it to distract herself from her marital woes. Roger Ebert has stepped outside the movie realm to praise it in his blog. Saturday Night Livespoofed it. Mob Wives star Big Ang Raiola recited favorite quips for Us Weekly.

Could all of this fuss really be about a PBS show? Quite right. Masterpiece’s Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning hit, Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, a TV ratings success and cultural phenomenon, has catapulted the public-television broadcaster with the stodgy reputation to the cool kids’ table….

“There is a Downton-specific phenomenon going on,” said Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton, who also credited Sherlock with broadening Masterpiece’s audience. “People might have thought maybeMasterpiece was too refined for them, that maybe you had to have a master’s degree to enjoy it. People have come to the understanding that Masterpiece is just very well told stories with high production values and excellent acting, writing, and directing.”

On ‘Downton Abbey,’ downward mobility in period garb

Downton AbbeyPart of appeal is the smugness of hindsight. Just like “Mad Men” helps us think, “At least we’re not that sexist,” “Downton” lets us congratulate ourselves about American social mobility. Sure, we’ve got our 1 percent, the series reassures us, but we’re not all consigned to being masters and servants forever…

But the show seems most entranced with the notion of downward mobility. Consider the coming-of-age daughters of the wealthy Crawley family, raised in a palace that’s even bigger than Mitt Romney’s house in New Hampshire. Lady Mary is about to marry a common-born newspaper mogul, who sees their union as a business partnership. Lady Sybil is flirting with her Bolshevik chauffeur. Lady Edith steals a snog with a local farmer…

Then again, how satisfied should Americans be that our own country replaced rigid class with opportunity? In a 2007 study funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, researchers found that the United States lags behind most developed countries in social mobility, defined as the likelihood that someone will grow up to be better off than his parents.

Alex Beam: Down on season two of Downton Abbey

Alex Beam
Alex Beam. Image from IdentityTheory.com

By any metric, “Downton’’ has hit a home run. Nationally, it has more than doubled PBS’s prime-time audience. Locally, “Downton’’ is enjoying a 5.8 rating, twice as high as “Masterpiece Classic’’ ratings last year. It is too early to know if that translates into increased memberships or pledge commitments for WGBH…

I loved the first season of “Downton,’’ with its obsessive attention to the “law of the entail,’’ which forbad the earl’s daughters from inheriting their father’s magnificent property…

Season two has a phoned-in quality; miracles occur where skillful writing might have intervened, subplots wax and wane randomly. But I am an originalist snob. I’m one of those people who can’t understand why anyone would watch NBC’s “The Office,’’ a show stolen character for character for character and situation for situation from Ricky Gervais’s much funnier British show. But what the heck, it’s television.

PBS takes on the premium channels

In an effort to freshen its image and lift revenue, the Public Broadcasting Service is trying to be more like HBO — without the monthly cable bill….

Emboldened by the success of the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television, PBS now faces the challenge of translating the buzz and enthusiasm for the show into donations to local stations and public financing. A stodgy pledge drive or traditional pleas for contributions would probably fall flat with viewers. So, PBS decided to fit “Downton Abbey,” which begins its second season on Sunday, into a broader effort to spruce up its prime-time lineup.

Downton Abbey wins Emmys
“As you know, HBO has tremendous marketing and advertising muscle behind it,” said executive producer Rebecca Eaton. “When a program like ‘Downton Abbey’ wins, its because it stands on its merits.”

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Time calls Rebecca Eaton one of world’s most influential people

Rebecca Eaton has been the executive producer of Masterpiece for 25 of its 40 years. She has a passion for great drama, for great stories, beautifully told, that showcase extraordinary actors.

Under her watch, Masterpiece has brought the American public some of television’s most popular and enduring dramas, including Prime Suspect, Bleak House, Sherlock and the new Upstairs Downstairs

As Masterpiece, still on a publicly funded network, celebrates this remarkable anniversary, we Americans are fortunate to have Rebecca at the helm: someone committed to bringing great television drama to the widest possible audience, week after week.

Producing and recording “Favorite Themes for Masterpiece Theatre”

In 1980, shortly after departing WGBH to seek fame (and possibly fortune) as an independent producer, I approached Joan Wilson with a proposal to issue a record album of “Favorite Themes from Masterpiece Theatre.” Joan went for the idea immediately and asked Henry Becton and Sam Tyler for their endorsements. We got a budget and were ready to rock.

Alice Kossoff was our legal beagle at WGBH, and she was great! At the outset, the hardest part of the whole project was negotiating and collecting the executed contracts back from Britain. These were the days of the FAX and/or teletype, but no e-mail, and unless I phoned or until I actually presented myself in person at their door, the Brits seemed content to just ‘muddle along’ until the eleventh hour. One had to wait for weeks for confirmation from mysterious and slow-moving institutions like Clarabella Music, Limited and The Mechanical Copyright Protection Society.

Most of the music rights were held by the BBC, London Weekend, EMI, Thames TV, British Decca, and Pushbike Music in London. The copyright to the main theme, “Rondeau” by J.J. Mouret, was held by an obscure and hard-to-locate company, Vogue Music, somewhere in France.

Since two of the selctions were not quite long enough for a record album, I commissioned Kenyon Emrys-Roberts and Wilfred Josephs, the composers of “Poldark” and “I, Claudius,” respectively, to extend their music specifically for the LP. Both were happy to do so and luckily, I got permission to record these extensions with an orchestra of top-flight players at a BBC music studio in Maida Vale, just outside London.

Having previously produced an album for RCA London was, I suppose, useful in opening some otherwise sticky doors but looking back, I must acknowledge that Joan’s unflagging support, a decent budget, and Lady Luck were with me all the way.

Setting up at Maida Vale on a gray Saturday morning, while waiting for all the musicians to arrive, I was stunned to learn from my studio producer that a musical legend would be joining the band that morning: Alan Civil had been contracted to play French horn. Holy Cow! Alan was Dennis Brain’s successor at the Philharmonia, and had played in the Beatles’ albums “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Holy Cow!

Mixing down at Maida Vale 6 (Kenyon Emrys-Roberts rear doorway)

Our band was superb; most everything was completed in just two takes. Some of my fondest memories include meeting and chatting with the composers of “Poldark” and “I, Claudius” and afterwards, enjoying Shepherd’s Pie and a pint for lunch with the crew a local pub following the sessions.

I corresponded with Emrys-Roberts and his wife for years, and was once a guest for dinner in their beautiful home in Sussex. It was a different world, recording in England, and I have often yearned for one more trip, one more tune … just one more take.