EXCLUSIVE: It’s an end of an era at Masterpiece. As the iconic PBS drama franchise is heading into its 50th anniversary in 2021, the woman who steered it for the past 34 years, Rebecca Eaton, is taking a step back. Eaton, who has headed Masterpiece since 1985, is stepping down as Executive Producer. She will stay on as Executive-Producer-at-Large, focusing on the development of new drama projects and fundraising for the Masterpiece Trust.
Eaton will be succeeded by Susanne Simpson who has been promoted to Executive Producer of Masterpiece from Deputy Executive Producer. Simpson, a two- time Oscar nominee and two-time Emmy winner, will be responsible for the slate of programming and day-to-day operations.
One of the most celebrated producers in television, over the past three decades Eaton has became a go-to partner for producers of high-end U.K. dramas. She helped British drama series enter the U.S. mainstream — and cultural zeitgeist — drawing a new generation of viewers with shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock.
During her time at the helm, Masterpiece amassed 62 Primetime Emmy Awards, 16 Peabody Awards, six Golden Globes, and two Academy Award nominations. In recognition of her contributions to popularizing British dramas in the U.S., Eaton was awarded an honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II.
In 2011 Eaton launched The Masterpiece Trust which, to date, has raised more than $20 million from viewers to secure the series’ future.
“For me, an Anglophile bookworm and the daughter of an English professor and an actress, Masterpiece has been my ideal professional home,” Eaton said. “I relish working with my British colleagues, the people who actually make and sell these fabulous programs, and I am convinced that Masterpiece is still vital today because of the steadfast support of PBS; our funders; and, most importantly, our famously loyal viewers.”
As Deputy Executive Producer, Simpson has been part of the executive team working closely with Eaton on the selection of programming as well as heading up the promotion, marketing and digital efforts on behalf of all Masterpiece programs. She is the Executive Producer of the award-winning Masterpiece Studio podcast, which has 14 million downloads to date.
Since joining Masterpiece in 2007, Simpson has been responsible for such programs as Sherlock, Wolf Hall, and Victoria — and oversaw all aspects of the U.S. broadcast of the hit series Downton Abbey —the most watched drama in PBS history and recipient of 59 Emmy nominations and 12 wins.
She is now tasked with steering the venerable franchise in the era of streaming as more and more SVOD platforms jump on the British drama bandwagon.
“There is no one better prepared than Susanne to succeed Rebecca,” said John Bredar, VP of Programming at WGBH Boston, where Masterpiece is produced. “And Masterpiece will continue to benefit from Rebecca’s sharp-eyed sense of story and character and her unique ability to connect with funders who support the series. In this competitive TV landscape, we are fortunate to have Susanne and Rebecca–two of the most talented executives working in drama today—taking Masterpiece into the future.”
Prior to Masterpiece, Simpson was Supervising Producer for the WGBH-produced science series Nova and Executive Producer for Nova’s IMAX films, producing the acclaimed Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure and Special Effects with George Lucas’ company Industrial Light and Magic, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
“It’s an incredible honor to be taking over a series with Masterpiece’s unique history – one that has created a devoted audience for British drama,” says Simpson. “For 12 years, I’ve worked closely with Rebecca Eaton, and I’m so grateful for her, and WGBH’s, support. With the wealth of great drama coming from our UK partners, it’s a thrilling time to be working at Masterpiece.”