Why I turned down Downton Abbey: Rebecca Eaton

Masterpiece's executive director reflects on 28 years with PBS

Rebecca Eaton (Courtesy of Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

After 28 years as the executive director of PBS’s Masterpiece, Rebecca Eaton has written her memoir, Making Masterpiece, a chatty, witty look back on a career shaped by the longest prime-time drama in America history. Since it started in 1971, Masterpiece has aired such famous dramas as I, Claudius, The First Churchills, Elizabeth R, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Jewel in the Crown, Traffik and Wallander. When not dishing on a young Daniel Radcliffe, or talking to Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) on her cellphone while the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) was trying to reach her on her landline, Eaton talks candidly about rebooting the show five years ago after its ratings dove and audiences fled. Now thanks to hits like Downton Abbey (which starts its fourth season on Jan. 5) and Sherlock (starting on Jan. 19), it’s flying high once again.

Q: How do you describe your job to people?

A: I try not to choose the bad British programs. I’m the curator. I look at what is being made, or proposed to be made, in England—our niche is high-end British dramas—so I choose programs that I think will work for our audiences. And then, I read the scripts, look at auditions, negotiate the deals. They go and make them, then we screen the edits.

Q: Do people realize that a lot of shows are recut for Masterpiece’s 90-minute slot? For instance, Downton is run in Britain with ads, but not in North America.

A: Yes, though not significantly. And we don’t do the re-cutting. We ask the producers and directors to do that, because these are their babies and they would know best what would come out. Mostly they are small trims to make it feel our timeslot. For Downton, they are taking out the ads and connecting the scenes together. In England you would have watched a commercial, here there’s just a subliminal sense of time passing.

Q: It’s had a following for more than 40 years. Why?

A: First of all, it’s had time to develop a good following. I think the programs that have been chosen are memorable and have a broad enough appeal that often people watch them communally. Back in the day, there wasn’t any other way to see television but sitting down at the appointed hour and watching the show.

Another reason is that there is something memorable and uplifting about a very well done piece of art, performance or ballet. They stick with people; they have substance. And they are often uplifting. Some of the best stories in literature are stories with positive resolutions. The bad guy is caught, justice is served, money is returned.

Q: The list of blockbusters is seemingly endless: The Forsyte Saga, Morse, Poirot, Wallander, Downton Abbey, Sherlock. What’s your favourite Masterpiece series?

A: Everyone always loves the new baby, so of course I’m loving Sherlock and Downton. And they are so well done. [Creators] Steven Moffat and Julian Fellowes—you just have to be in awe of them.

Over the years, there are programs that truly stuck with me, largely because of performances: Judy Dench as Victoria in Mrs. Brown, Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, Maggie Smith in Bed Among the Lentils, and I loved the original House of Cards we did with the BBC, starring Ian Richardson.

Q: A huge number of “serious” British actors have appeared on Masterpiece. Is it fair to say Masterpiece changed the way Hollywood looks at TV, that it’s made it acceptable for actors to work in both genres?

A: I would love to think that. Over the years, I do think it’s served as a platform, an opportunity for British actors to show their stuff to Hollywood producers. They took the parts because they would be shown in England, but because they are on in Masterpiece in this country. It’s a very visible place for actors to do an audition. And many actors have caught the eye of producers that way.  For instance Hugh Laurie was in Jeeves & Wooster before he was in House.

Q: You started as head of Masterpiece in 1985, just after its blockbuster The Jewel in the Crown. Yet you hadn’t watched it regularly before then?

A: I was young and on the town, and wasn’t not home a lot on Sunday nights, which was the only way to see it then. But I knew the material: I was an English major, a reader, an Anglophile.

Q: Did you realize then that, as you said in your memoirs, the drama cupboard was starting to run bare?

A: I didn’t know it at the time. I thought “wow, this could be easy.” These wonderful producers in England make this material, all I have to do is screen the shows, chose the best ones and go home to bed. I didn’t realize that the pendullum had swung in another direction, with fewer mini series, less period drama. The British were doing more naval gazing, looking at contemporary problems that wouldn’t be of interest to our audiences, or so we thought so. Finally we took a few chances on A Very British Coup, Traffik, Prime Suspect and found dramas that absolutely  appealed to American audiences. I did a lot of tap dancing in those years.

Q: A large part of the ratings increase in recent years is because of Downton Abbey. Yet you initially turned it down. What were you thinking?

A: I must have been out of my mind. I was half asleep reading a book when the phone rang. It wasn’t because of the quality of Downton and the pitch, it has to do with other things on our schedule. We were about to do the new Upstairs, Downstairs. We had just done The Buccaneers, about American heiresses married off to impoverished British aristocracy. It didn’t look like something we needed. I clearly was not awake. And the television gods were very generous to me and gave me another chance. When I woke up, it was still available.

Q: In January you’re airing Downton Abbey back-to-back with Sherlock. Given Downton’s audience is older and more female while Sherlock’s is younger and more male, is it a plan to get everyone back in front of the TV on Sunday night?

A: [laughing] No, I’d never thought of that. It’s a social engineering project to get all generations to sit on the couch on Sunday night like they used to. [More laughing) I thought you were going to say that the older viewers would watch Downton but could they stay up? And the answer to that is “Push the button and watch it next Saturday morning.” Just remember to record it.

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