Intelligent viewers have spoken

A show once dubbed ‘grandparents’ TV’ is rocking the ratings wars
A disgraced aristocrat jumps off a bridge. Or was he pushed? As usual, Zen gets mixed signals from his scheming bosses: the Ministry of Justice wants a ruling of suicide, while a powerful—and beautiful—prosecutor hints that Zen had better start looking for the murderer. Shown: Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen. Credit: © Leftbank Pictures 2011 for MASTERPIECE Usage: This image may only be used in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE. No other rights are granted. All rights reserved.
Intelligent viewers have spoken
Franco Bellomo/WGBH

In an era of moribund network ratings, PBS’s Sunday stalwart Masterpiece has done the impossible, becoming TV’s standout program, with a 44 per cent increase in ratings. And the show accomplished it not by dumbing down or skimping on content but by doing the opposite: churning out more and more intelligent, sophisticated series. Everyone in the industry gives credit to one person: its executive producer Rebecca Eaton, 63, who’s had the job for 25 years. But the show wasn’t always flying high. Three years ago, it was floundering, a “dusty jewel,” Eaton recalls. The home of classics such as Traffik and The Jewel in the Crown looked and felt dated. Though it was showing acclaimed dramas such as Bleak House, viewers labelled it their “grandparents’ TV.” Making matters worse was a scheduling schizophrenia: a Brontë period drama would be followed by a contemporary thriller like Prime Suspect and then a Hercule Poirot cozy mystery.

Eaton gambled on a down-to-the-studs renovation. She wiped the fuddy-duddy name “Theatre” from the title. To cure the “head snap” scheduling problem, she divided the show into three seasons: contemporary dramas in the fall, classic fare in the winter, and mysteries in the summer. Each section got a distinct new look and a talented actor as a host. Acerbic Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) eagerly snapped up the Mystery! gig. “I think the whole notion of being a host announcing a drama that is about to unfold is a very rare thing these days, and it just really appealed to me,” he explained.

Ratings increased steadily before soaring this past year—its 40th on air—as Masterpiece pumped out hit after hit, including the acclaimed Sherlock, a new Upstairs Downstairs and the blockbuster Downton Abbey. The latter attracted 12.6 million viewers, with another one million watching it online. The drama about an aristocratic family and its servants was a hit in the prime early 20s age group, a market the show doesn’t target.

That Masterpiece can reel in new viewers is helped by its massive amount of original programming: it airs around 35 weeks of new product each year, compared to 13 weeks for most quality shows. “The programs are fresh and have today’s actors in them,” says John Wilson, PBS’s chief programming officer. “It isn’t the 40th season of Gunsmoke.”

Rather than buying off-the-shelf dramas, Eaton decided to gain some editorial control by investing directly in creations. In 2011, all but two of the show’s series are co-productions, including Zen, which features Rufus Sewell as an Armani-clad, ethically challenged Italian cop named Aurelio Zen. It started on July 17 and was created by London’s Left Bank Pictures, whose CEO Andy Harries (The Queen, Prime Suspect) has built up a “long, long relationship” with Eaton. Though he could sell his award-winning dramas to commercial networks like HBO or Showtime, Harries “always tends to go to her first.” Though the public broadcasting producer has limited funds, Harries likes that Eaton is willing to take a gamble, such as his “bit left of field” concept of casting British actors to play foreign detectives and then filming on location. The results are Wallander—in which Kenneth Branagh is a morose, laconic Swedish officer—and Zen, shot in Rome.

While some series continue—seven new weeks of Downton Abbey start in January—others are one-offs. This November, the contemporary section airs a conspiracy thriller called Page Eight, written and directed by David Hare. It’s packed with so many British thespians that Eaton forgets one famous name. “Oh, PS, and Ralph Fiennes,” she adds, laughing.

Though accolades keep rolling in—the show got 25 Emmy nominations, one-quarter the nods given to HBO’s entire channel—financing the pricey dramas is a concern, especially since her budget has been trimmed. So Eaton established the Masterpiece Trust; since January, the show’s avid fans have put nearly $1 million in the kitty. The show’s continued success is crucial for a network that gets a chunk of its money directly from viewers. Thankfully, PBS’s Wilson notes, “ ‘Good stories, well told’ will always win the day.”