'Downton Abbey II' and the problem(s) with PBS

“A gift from God,” is the way Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton described Downton Abbey, whose sequel will premiere Jan. 8 (ten hours of English country house huggermugger spread over seven weeks). Eaton was addressing TV critics at the Summer TV Press Tour in Los Angeles on Sunday, bubbling with delight that The Series Formerly Known As Masterpiece Theatre had seen a 43% ratings increase in the past year thanks to Downton, Sherlock (three more of those coming up in May 2012), and the updated Upstairs Downstairs (six more episodes will air in 2013).

Jolly good for Eaton, and she was probably right to thank God, because it didn’t seem as though the good luck for Masterpiece had much to do with Masterpiece itself or with PBS in general. In fact, over two days of PBS press conferences covering everyone from Elmo (a documentary about puppeteer Kevin Clash, Being Elmo, looks terrific) to Ken Burns (whose signature amber tinting will never be more apt than when his legwork on liquor, Prohibition, premieres in October), the same dismaying theme recurred: PBS seems to air a few very good shows every year not by design but by happy accident.

Think about it. Downton Abbey, as pure a light pleasure as TV has given us recently, had nothing to do with Masterpiece or PBS, but rather the talents of writer Julian Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame, and its marvelous cast. It aired on ITV in England, PBS picked it up as part of its Masterpiece season and then left it to American critics and viewers to tell the network what a little treasure it was in possession of. Honestly, before Downton became a U.S. hit, you wouldn’t have had a clue, given the merely standard promotion PBS gave it, that this was something special. Now, of course, Eaton is crowing that Downton is “the best thing that has happened to Masterpiece in years” and is doubtless fervently hoping that, if God and Fellowes don’t produce a third “gift” in the form of another sequel, perhaps PBS can arrange for a spin-off, Downton Abbey: Special Servants Unit.

I joke, of course. Partly because PBS would never joke about itself. In her opening keynote address to the press, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger spoke with misplaced pride about the sort of fund-raising programming PBS does, shortly before bringing out a wee bit of definitive proof of how lame that programming is, as The Monkees’ Davy Jones gassed on and on about what was going to make 60s Pop Rock: My Music such a fun time broken up by pledge breaks. While Kerger boasts that PBS’ online audience is “under 35,” let’s face it, PBS is catering primarily to a baby-boomer-and-older audience. Yet Kerger and PBS don’t seem to see this as the gift that it is. PBS has a self-selecting audience, potentially huge in numbers and with more discretionary income to donate than the demo that watches Jersey Shore. PBS has an audience of people sick of having Real Housewives and Hot In Cleveland and Hoarders shoved at them.

“We have a hit!” Eaton proclaimed during the Downton Abbey panel, and pronounced the promo clip shown — which shows the characters in the midst of World War I, some fighting on the front lines, others fighting over who has to clean which ponce’s bedroom — as being “more precious than gold.” Again, happy for Eaton, but why should she be surprised that her series can produce a hit? It should be spawning more of them, rather than waste time alienating viewers with its sad “re-branding” as Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, Masterpiece Contemporary, and, doubtless soon enough, Masterpiece Masterpiece.

Instead of coming up with a mixture of new, clever series and re-broadcasts from its storehouse of great old shows, PBS is hyping staid middlebrow fare such as an Andrea Bocelli concert as the high point of its “Fall Arts Festival.” When a TV critic asked why Kerger doesn’t rebroadcast a marvelous 1971-73 PBS series such as The Great American Dream Machine (an anthology show that offered satire, Albert Brooks, a very sharp Andy Rooney, and the mischievous disruptor-host Marshall Efron), she acknowledged the show’s quality and then called upon a WNET executive to ask about Dream Machine‘s possible return. His answer: PBS would not air complete episodes of the show (of course not: that would be too entertaining!) but instead is producing a “retrospective one-off, like … The Best of Laugh-In.”

Ye gods. Did you see The Best of Laugh-In? Answers: a., of course you didn’t, and b., it was awful: chopped-up, watered-down. And it’s not just the fund-raising programming. Last season, PBS took the history of TV, and chopped it into a thousand little clips and no insight and called it Pioneers of Television. It’s as though PBS is trying to stay away from anything interesting, or challenging. (Let’s hope it fares better with its new show about pioneers of television, American Primetime, but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s more teeny clip after teeny clip with much celebrity gush and little critical context. I hope I’m wrong and that it’s better than that.)

We know at least one reason why all this is. PBS doesn’t want to go back to the days in which it stirred things up, to the days when Bill Moyers and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and An American Family provoked audiences, and attracted the censure of politicians grandstanding to take away PBS’ small amount of government funding. Except for Frontline and the occasional Independent Lens and a few of the  American Masters each season, PBS has ceded responsibility for aggressive programming dealing with current events or arts coverage with a forceful point of view (for the latter, I point you to Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New).

What should PBS do? I can think of a half-dozen things. But it doesn’t make any difference. As Kerger and PBS made clear over the past couple of days, it is committed to “nostalgia” (the hideous code-word for honoring the past by smothering it with gooey sentimentality). Its children’s programming remains pretty good.

And there’s always Downton Abbey II to look forward to. I am.

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Comments (139 total) Add your comment
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  • Copy editor

    Amen, all so true.

    • gazmo

      OMG!!

      You’d STOP complaining if you ever saw PBS in Raleigh NC!!
      10 hours a day of NC History, NC Coastline, NC Politics, the history of NC droolbuckets and no Soundstage or Austin CIty (except moldy reruns after midnight).
      PBS is nothing but an annoying pledge drive machine that provides almost NO quality fare and should be ashamed of itself!!

    • sue

      I hate it when PBS say these shows are theirs. They have no say in Sherlock or Downton Abbey.Why the hell did the BBC give PBS the rights to air Sherlock. Such a waste.

      • Mo

        What other American TV channel would have bought Sherlock?

      • Ruby

        Yeah, I can’t imagine another network grabbing Sherlock (as great a series as it is).

      • DT

        Both “Sherlock” and “Downton Abbey” were “Masterpiece” co-productions. So yes, those shows *are* theirs, and they *do* have a say.

  • Nicolaus

    Every single sentence of this article is a masterpiece of lucidity. I can only hope that some PBS higher-ups will recognize valid criticism, so they can start putting the donor before the donation drive.

    • DS9Sisko

      Second. I may not always agree with Tucker (sometimes vehemently so), but if he has ever written a more spot on critique in the last 5 years, I haven’t read it. And I’ve read almost all of his.

  • Coyote

    Promote and air more Brit masterpieces like the four-parter Exile. And let people know that PBS doesn’t need to cut these programs to ribbons just to fit in commercials like BBCA does.

    • Saerwen

      No, PBS just cuts them for no reason at all. Each episode of Sherlock had ten minutes cut out of it for no apparent reason, since there are no commercials. I was glad they aired Sherlock, since I don’t have BBCA and wouldn’t have been able to watch it otherwise, but the full episodes were not available until the DVD release.

      • Nancy

        Sherlock was hugely popular and most likely attracted a younger audience. Many of us fans are waiting eagerly for season two, which PBS is putting off until May 2011. If you want to broaden your audience, PBS, you need to focus on more inventive and exciting programs like this!

      • ChaCha

        Same senseless cutting of Downton Abbey last season. I got the DVD set and discovered that some parts of the series made a lot more sense without the stupid cutting. Shame on PBS and it’s butchering of good series.

      • maggie

        @Nancy,
        PBS isn’t responsible for putting off Sherlock until May 2011. They are having a late start in filming new episodes because Martin Freeman (Watson) is staring as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit movies. They had to wait until Peter Jackson could give him time off from filming so that he could film the new Sherlock.

      • Anei

        @Maggie – Not quite. The Hobbit actually arranged its shooting schedule around Sherlock so that Freeman could take the role of Bilbo. He’d already committed to a second season of Sherlock, and would have had to turn down the Hobbit.
        Meanwhile, Sherlock will air in Britain this autumn. As with last season, we in the states get the new series considerably later.

      • not Bridget

        Sherlock will, indeed, be delayed in the UK. Latest reports have it showing in 2012–partly because they’re still filming.

        I do wish they would run the shows without cuts. Still–the versions on Netflix Streaming are full length. But why should we have to wait?

  • snufkin

    I was so bummed to hear about their announcements because it included how the new episodes of Sherlock won’t show in the US until May 2012. Originally they said it’d be November, now it’ll be another 10 months (and it’s already a year since the last episodes) :(.

  • tim

    Editorial malpractice. No mention made of the inexplicable editing hack job PBS did on Downton Abbey I. I watched the UK originals and was astonished at the difference. PBS is an embarrassment. They deserve to wither and die, just as their target audience is slowly doing.

    • Rj

      PBS cut out just 20 minutes. The British newspaper article claiming hours of cuts was wrong.

      • Mo

        I wish I could find a point-by-point comparison somewhere. You say 20 minutes. I read somewhere PBS claimed 7, or maybe even less. Somewhere else I read no footage had been cut, just rearranged. So I am very confused as to what the truth is.

      • Sarah

        At least they’re airing them at all…

      • tim

        Why cut out even a minute? For example, the entire storyline about how the Turkish ambassador finds out about the dead Mr. Pamook is explained, rather than just stated

    • Evangeline Holland

      There were snips of conversations throughout the seven episodes, but the only major cut was the snuff-box sub-plot.

    • ginny

      You can watch all of Downton Abbey, unedited, through Netflix. No better use of Netflix streaming. Clear your schedule and gorge on all 7 episodes back to back.

      • Ruby

        That’s what I did! :)

    • maggie

      Having seen both the original UK version, and the PBS version, there really wasn’t a lot cut. The major cut involved Thomas and O’Brien setting up Bates. In the UK version they did this twice. The first time, with the snuff box, failed. Then they tried again with the wine. PBS cut out the first try with the snuff box.

    • anne

      Hey, Tim–

      Shut up!! If you don’t like PBS, then don’t watch and don’t piss and moan. Don’t kill it for the rest of us.

      The edits to Downton Abbey were done by its original producers.

      • tim

        Hey Anne- You’re an imbecile and that’s who needs original content edited, cuz you’re too stupid to follow the plot.

      • Thornton

        Hey Anne you’re a jerk!

  • biglarry

    I fully agree with this article and the comments. PBS has evolved into a vehicle for job preservation of its employees by pandering to the middlebrow (and often lowbrow) tastes of the middle America. A new pledge drive with warmed over music “specials” seems to take place every few weeks now. PBS could be much livelier by featuring top-notch movies from lesser known directors or countries alone. I’m pretty sure that these films can be obtained at a pittance as opposed to the fees for blockbusters.

    The programing quality depends on the quality of one’s employees,i.e., the versatility of their intellectual and artistic outlook, taste, and education. PBS’s current staff don’t seem to have any of those in abundance.

  • Evangeline Holland

    I personally think PBS would get a jolt in the arm if it followed the BBC licensing model. The Brits are guaranteed a modicum of quality fare from the various BBC stations because they have a stake in the network.

  • B

    For the record, I would totally watch Downton Abbey: Special Servants Unit. :) How entertaining would that be?!

  • Mo

    I agree. I can still get excited over some PBS programming (Downton, Sherlock, Frontline, some Nova, some Nature, some Independent Lens) but so much of it nowadays seems to want to be staid, it’s disappointing. Do all documentaries have to be Ken Burns or a Ken Burns knockoff, with lots of sepia and B&W and old-timey fiddle music? The few that I have seen that had some energy to them were all aired in Independent Lens.

  • MJ

    I get the feeling that PBS is treading water right now. Maybe this has something to do with the government funding issue, i.e. cuts to so called left leaning programs. In addition, they could be taking the easy way out and leaving the interesting programs to HBO,Showtime and the like.That way, they don’t have to risk the controversy.

    • Kris L

      I agree the current state of politics (and therefore funding) has something to do with matters. How many people these days realistically watch NOVA? A lot fewer than before because it won’t bother dealing with science topics that may get it called ‘left-wing’.

    • Kathy

      They do have to be careful, the evil GOP would gladly grab on to any excuse to cut funding. They they would have more money for millionare taxbreaks.

      • Ruby

        Evil? That’s pushing it a little far…

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    • ChaCha

      All of you are right on about the lowbrows in Congress trying to cut funding. I think PBS is just running scared, trying to please anyone with the power to cut funding. Unfortunately, that causes a backlash from the fed up viewer donors.

  • J

    I never understood why, during pledge drives, PBS programming alway got worse. It stopped showing its usual programming which I liked and wanted to watch, and replaced it with crap I did not want to watch. Way to get my money PBS.

    And yes, I think changing Masterpiece Theater to Masterpiece Classic, and Mystery! to Masterpiece Mystery is ridiculous. Besides, I really really miss the old theme songs (with full blown orchestrations). Talk about nostalgia: can we get Vincent Price and Alistair Cooke back?
    PS I’m under 35.

    • v

      Both VP and AC can return only through a medium since their deaths years ago. PBS has been under such political attack as well as NPR that they probably are reaching to the baby boomers — conservative and liberal–as voters to preserve their funding. Otherwise, my local PBS station once told my volunteer group that the Lawrence Welk crowd makes the most donation calls and they are dying off. But I agree that there are most intelligent old PBS shows to re-broadcast.

      • ChaCha

        Maybe PBS could bring back Vincent and Alistair back thru a new series called Masterpiece Horror!

      • maggie

        Or Masterpiece Zombie!

      • Aber

        I think Skip Gates is aticng stupidly. Why should the government take money from people who’ve earned it so that Gates can write on-air love letters for his friends. If Gates produces a quality, compelling piece of television, I’m sure he can find some place for it in the private market using PRIVATE money.

    • Myke25

      And yet, the ratings for Masterpiece have increased since the rebranding (not that ratings matter that much to PBS) and series like Downton Abbey and Sherlock have created a lot of buzz in the past year…on their own merits, not because of the overly-hyped promotion the commercial networks are notoriously famous for.

      Yes, there’s a bit too much doo-wop on during Pledge drives, but I can deal with that if it means I can see NOVA (Yes, I watch NOVA!) and Masterpiece commercial-free. The key to PBS’ survival is NOT looking more commercial.

      • Mo

        I watch NOVA too! However, I have to admit that, out of the ones I have seen in the last couple of years, with the exception of the episode about fractals and the ones about absolute zero, my absolute favorites have been the more commercial, even at times goofy fun ones, which would have been The Pluto Files and the Making Stuff series; they even had my jaded kids giggling and oohing in spots. I’m not a long-time NOVA watcher, so I don’t know if they have always had more light-hearted (and still incredibly informative!) shows or not – you’re going to make me feel guilty now!

    • Petra

      could not agree more!! would add, too, that the “commentary” provided in the new intros are a complete waste of time – simply offering a very thin synopsis of what we’re about to see rather than the sometimes obscure always relevant stories and bits of information provided by hosts of old, which served to enrich what we were about to see. Alistair Cooke – we miss you!!

    • Lynne

      I believe that the “crap you do not want to watch” is special programs that are donated to the stations to air free of charge during Pledge Drives. I do have to agree that they might get more people to watch during pledge drives if they continued their regular programs, but the incessant “Send Money” commercials (it’s hard to think of them as anything else) grate like fingernails on a blackboard (there’s a wonderful simile that is going by the wayside, but I digress) so I don’t watch anyway.

      I also wish that Masterpiece would revive more shows from the past. I particularly remember a wonderful series of Lord Peter Wimsey stories that I would love to see again. I suspect that the powers that be at Masterpiece are worried that the production values and quality of the video/film wouldn’t stand up to modern expectatons. Maybe they could come up with a fourth clone: Masterpiece Old School :-)

    • Brahim

      So being aaginst corrupt Republican policies that nearly destroyed our country during the eight-year crimewave of Cheney/Bush makes us “left-leaning”? If so it’s a badge I wear with pride.

      • Gabby

        Both sides are criminally corrupt and complicit in the current state of affairs. But yes, the Republicans especially made a right mess of things.

  • jj

    looking forward to Downton Abbey II

    • Annie

      Me too! Re-watching the first Downton abbey right now and can not wait till January!!!

    • Ellen

      Me too!! I had the great opportunity to visit Highclere Castle (the mansion where they film Downton Abbey) in April. It was even more breath taking in person! It made me crave the new season even more.

  • Nikki

    A lot of what you’ve said is true but what can they do? If their funding gets cut there won’t be any PBS at all. Some politicians are chomping at the bit to get rid of them and NPR.

    • Jen

      Congress gives minimal amounts to PBS. If they were free of government funding they’d probably be able to show better programming, thus enticing newer, younger donors.

  • meg

    Looking forward to Masterpiece Contemporary this Fall, too.

  • iggy

    I like a lot of the programming on PBS, including Masterpiece, but the programming during pledge week boggles the mind. Instead of rerunning hits like Downton Abbey and Sherlock, they (at least my local station), runs old John Denver Concerts, and reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show….doesn’t exactly make you want to run to the phone to make a pledge.

    • Ames

      the major pledge week retreads in my area seem to be Doo-Wop and filmed self-help seminars. It’s terrible.

      • greg

        Ditto. And our local station often preempts PBS’s regular programming to air some dopey music special. I drives me nuts when I tune into Masterpiece, expecting a cool British mystery, and get “Vienna’s Greatest Waltzes” instead.

    • ChaCha

      Do both of you live in Phoenix? That’s all we get here during the pledge beggings. Booorrrring. I used to look forward (years and years ago) to the pledge times, because the programs actually were entertaining. Now when I see that the begging has begun again, I just tune out the PBS station for two weeks.

    • dtiger

      When the doo-wop & self help shows are run, people send in money. Start a trend by sending a donation with an explanation that it’s because of the show of your choice. Call the viewer services lines and express thanks for the good shows.

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