Masterpiece expands hours with “gushing pipeline” of classics, mysteries

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Masterpiece will concentrate on bolstering its popular Classics and Mystery! strands with an boost in support from its main sponsor, Viking River Cruises.

Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton is also working on developing a major new series.

In Grantchester, James Norton, left, stars as a charismatic vicar who turns to a police inspector, played by Geordie Keating, when a parishioner dies. (Photo: Masterpiece)

In Grantchester, James Norton, left, stars as a charismatic vicar who turns to a police inspector, played by Geordie Keating, when a parishioner dies. (Photo: Masterpiece)

The WGBH icon program’s footprint will expand by 50 percent — around 20 hours — with additional episodes spread throughout the season. Extra hours will be scheduled Sundays at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. Eastern time, before or after Masterpiece’s longtime 9 p.m. time slot. All will be designated common carriage.

Kicking off the bigger schedule is the six-part Grantchester, at 10 p.m. Jan. 18, immediately following Downton Abbey. Set in 1953, the mystery based on novels by James Runcie follows a clergyman (actor James Norton) and police officer (Robson Green) who solve criminal cases.

April brings Wolf Hall, an adaptation of the Booker Prize–winning novel. The six-parter charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor court, from blacksmith’s son to King Henry VIII’s most trusted adviser.

“We are emphasizing classics and mystery,” Eaton said. “That’s what’s gushing out of the pipeline from the U.K. There’s so much good material.” Yet the Contemporary thread also continues with offerings such as Worricker: Turks & Caicos, about an MI5 spy, with guest stars including Christopher Walken, Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes.

High-profile Masterpiece hits Sherlock and Downton Abbey have drawn attention from other media outlets looking for the next ratings blockbuster, Eaton noted, which has stiffened competition for content. “One of the reasons we’re increasing the size of our footprint is to remain competitive,” Eaton said. “We’re not content to twiddle our thumbs just because Sundays at 9 p.m. is full.”

PBS will continue to acquire additional British content to round out the schedule, said primetime spokesperson Carrie Johnson. Call the Midwife starts Season 4 in spring 2015, and Vicious returns next summer.

Although it’s too early to provide details, Eaton said she’s concentrating on developing “more large, ongoing series” of 10 hours or more. She hopes to premiere one next fall.

And she remains grateful to Masterpiece fans that have supported the series since it debuted in 1971. The steady growth is “a testimony to the loyalty of our audience and the support of PBS,” Eaton said. “They have backed Masterpiece through thick and thin — and years ago, it was a little thin.” Longtime underwriter ExxonMobil, which fully funded the series with $10 million annually, pulled its sponsorship in 2004. Viking River Cruises signed on in 2011, and designer Ralph Lauren came on board in 2012.

Ratings have grown over the past five years, from an average of 1.41 in 2009-10 to 2.4 in 2013-14, according to TRAC Media Services.