PBS already has talked with Julian Fellowes about his next drama for Masterpiece. Masterpiece chief Rebecca Eaton, talking to Deadline about today’s announced ending for Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, confirmed the talks, but declined to elaborate.
PBS chief Paula Kerger also was on the phone call, to assure Deadline PBS is not in a panic about the coming end of its most popular drama series in its history and a show that single-handedly made public broadcasting sexy again.
Eaton, however, acknowledged Downton has “been a game-changer” for the Masterpiece franchise that struggled for years to find a corporate sponsor when ExxonMobile dumped it, until Downton came along and turned Masterpiece back into the prettiest dress in the shop. She said she expects that impact to linger.
“What it’s done for Masterpiece is increase the non-Downton audience by 25-30 percent – the rising tide truly raised the boat,” Eaton said, boasting Masterpiece is now the top-rated program on PBS. That’s something she says “delicately” and knowing it won’t be on top forever, but it’s a claim of which she says she is particularly proud, given that Masterpiece is in its fourth decade.
Fellowes’ drama created renewed interest in the 8-10-episode-ish returning period drama on PBS, which Eaton called “our meat and drink.”
As a result of Downton’s popularity, Eaton said, Masterpiece’s “pipeline [of programming] is engorged.”
Asked about long-running rumors of a possible Downton spinoff, Eaton said “there have always been conversations” about the notion, because that’s how the industry tends to work when a show becomes a hit, but nothing ever was formalized.
Even in Downton’s final season Kerger says she sees no reason to run episodes to coincide with the British telecasts to avoid bootlegging and spoilers. ITV airs new episodes in the fall, but the January start date on PBS has “become a post-holiday tradition,” Kerger said, noting the cold weather in January and the number of people who have reported watching it while drinking their tea or something stronger and dressed in period costume. “People look forward to it… I don’t see any reason why we would change that.”