Eaton on post-‘Downton’ life: ‘It’s very hard for me to resist challenges’

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Eaton speaks with Derek Thompson, moderator for “Masterpieces in the Making: The Art of Classical Storytelling in the Digital Age,” an Aspen Institute event in 2015. (Photo: Olivier Douliery, Aspen Ideas Festival)

Eaton speaks with moderator Derek Thompson at an Aspen Institute event in 2015. (Photo: Olivier Douliery, Aspen Ideas Festival)

So, Downton Abbey’s finale season is over. What’s next for Masterpiece?

Rebecca Eaton is used to hearing that question. As executive producer of PBS’s signature drama strand, she brought the Edwardian-period British series stateside, plunging America into a six-year love affair with the noble Grantham family and their many servants.

The show became the most-watched drama in PBS history. PBS President Paula Kerger described it as “magical, like lightning in a bottle.” Its 2011 premiere season lit a bright beacon for a public television system still recovering from the Great Recession. As viewership grew, it began earning revenues for both PBS and member stations.

By the end of fiscal 2013, PBS had closed its books with an additional $24.5 million, thanks mainly to income from Downton distribution deals; in FY14, that figure was $30.7 million. Downton boosted local underwriting revenues and proved to be popular with pledge audiences as well. Fundraising specials created for the series raised more than $11 million for stations alone over the past two years.

That’s a tough act to top.

“This is the question I always get: ‘So now what are you going to do?’ As if we had not done anything before Downton!,” Eaton told Current in an extended interview last month. “We’ll do what we’ve always done, which is put the very best of British drama on Masterpiece. What’s the next Downton? What a question!”

British Ambassador Sir David Manning presents an honorary Officer, Order of the British Empire, title to Eaton in 2003 in Washington, D.C. “One of the joys of my job is the opportunity to present England’s rich culture and history to American audiences through drama,” Eaton said at the time. “It’s gratifying to be honored for work which I love.” (Photo: WGBH)

British Ambassador David Manning presents an honorary Officer, Order of the British Empire, title to Eaton in 2003 in Washington, D.C. “One of the joys of my job is the opportunity to present England’s rich culture and history to American audiences through drama,” Eaton said at the time. “It’s gratifying to be honored for work which I love.” (Photo: WGBH)

Eaton has been at the helm of the PBS strand for 31 years of its 45-season history. Along the way she’s been recognized with an honorary Officer, Order of the British Empire, title and CPB Ralph Lowell Award, met British and Hollywood royalty and posed for a portrait by photographer Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. She also wrote a retrospective book on the series and landed on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world list.

British writer Andrew Davies (House of Cards) calls Eaton “immortal and immutable.”

Here, Eaton discusses the alchemy and intensity of work behind building a hit show, Masterpiece’s changing relationship with PBS, competition with streaming services and her ambivalence about retirement.

This transcript was edited.

Now that Downton Abbey’s finale season is over, how has your work routine changed?

Eaton: I have to fully credit Susanne Simpson, our senior series producer. She was often the day-to-day person on that production over six years, which is a long time. Now that Downton is over, we’re both catching up with six years of lost sleep. I’m not kidding.

Downton was in many ways bigger in the U.S. than it was in the U.K. When it was on ITV in the U.K., it was one of many hit shows; for Masterpiece and for PBS, it became the show. A lot of our efforts went into the marketing of Downton in this country. And PBS was very generous in helping do that.

Our challenge was to keep the dream alive year-to-year. As we began to recognize that Downton’s popularity could be hugely beneficial to stations, we saw it as the rising tide lifting all boats.

The cast had parts to play in the success of Downton and a lot of our time was spent in publicity tours. They all came over — everybody but Maggie Smith — and were very generous with their time. They did events in New York and L.A. Eventually lots of them went to stations.

We learned a huge amount about managing a hit. And I’m not sure anybody among us at PBS had really has walked that road. Managing a drama hit is different. It’s in competition with the big boys in Hollywood, a very different kind of competition.

How is it different?

Eaton: Money and personality talk, in terms of publicity and awards. You publicize a show when it airs, and then you put just as much money as you can into campaigns for Emmys and Golden Globes. A limited number of people vote on these awards. The Golden Globes famously is just a handful of foreign press. The Emmys are different because thousands of people vote. And these campaigns cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Eaton, left, and the cast of Downton Abbey pose for photographers at the 2014 TCA Press Tour in Los Angeles. At right is Downton EP Gareth Neame. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose, PBS)

Eaton, left, and cast members of Downton Abbey pose for photographers at the 2014 TCA Press Tour in Los Angeles. At right is Downton EP Gareth Neame. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose, PBS)

For Downton, we could not have done what we did without the financial support of NBCUniversal, which owns Downton’s production company, Carnival Film and Television. It was in everyone’s interests to win awards and get publicity for the show, and they stepped up.

We learned that if you can get actors in front of the people whose votes matter in these contests, it’s magic. If you can get series creator Julian Fellowes and actor Michelle Dockery to talk to the Hollywood Foreign Press in a small conference room, the show gets nominated and sometimes it wins. It is very hard on the individual talents — they have to go to specific screening events and do the schmoozing —but it worked.

The fundraising components of Downton were a big byproduct of its success, especially the last few seasons. Masterpiece and PBS wanted to position the system for a post-Downton era. Were you pleased with how that worked?

Eaton: Yes and no. On the one hand, Downton made income from streaming and DVDs, which goes to PBS Distribution and then to PBS. Some of it goes back into the National Program Service. That definitely helped PBS stations and the audience in general.

The pledge shows set records in raising money for stations. Downton was a tiger by the tail in that respect.

Another aspect that is difficult to assess — but absolutely significant — is that Masterpiece brings members to stations. We have heard Downton caused numerous lapsed members to rejoin, it brought in new members, it increased donations. So that’s how the tide rose in three different harbors.

In terms of branding awareness, it was hugely beneficial to PBS and Masterpiece. Paula Kerger would be the first person to say it was a shot in the arm. It brought public television stations into the hits conversation. We’re talking about Breaking Bad, we’re talking about Mad Men and talking about Downton Abbey. Psychologically, it was huge. The only downside to all this is that it’s created a ravenous appetite that we have to continue to satisfy!

It became a hit at a time when stations were struggling. When Downton started taking off, you could really feel the difference. At conferences, people were happy again.

Eaton: Yes! I would go to the PBS Annual Meetings and people I didn’t know would just beam at me in the elevator.

‘How big will this get?’

When did you first get the inkling that Downton would be such a major hit?

Eaton: The previous fall it had aired in the U.K. and it was huge there. But that was not a guarantee.

Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was in England when it aired. He is a cultural icon who spans the Atlantic Ocean, because his wife is British. His instinct was that the show would do well here. So he immediately put actor Elizabeth McGovern in the Vanity Fair issue that coincided with Downton’s U.S. premiere. His “Letter from the Editor” in that issue was about Downton. That was a very good omen. The overnight ratings were great — and we won the Emmy that September.

We knew we were on a roll then. And the question became, “How big will this get?” It just got bigger and bigger.

In 2012 Eaton, second from right, took part in a celebratory maiden voyage on a new ship for underwriter Viking River Cruises. Other special guests included, left, actor Joanna Lumley; and center, Viking founder Torstein Hagen. (photo: Alastair Miller)

In 2012 Eaton, second from right, took part in a celebratory maiden voyage on a new ship for underwriter Viking River Cruises. Other special guests included, left, actor Joanna Lumley; and center, Viking founder Torstein Hagen. (Photo: Alastair Miller)

The other thing Downton brought to Masterpiece, very clearly, was PBS’s and WGBH’s commitment to increase the Masterpiece footprint by about 50 percent. We now are presenting 24 additional episodes for the network. That’s huge. When Downton happened, it brought us two underwriters, Viking River Cruises and Audible. That made possible our podcast Masterpiece Studio, which is already showing up in the top tier of iTunes.

Another sign of the rising tide was viewership of non-Downton titles on Masterpiece. This is the number that I keep my eye on. It’s fine if millions of people are watching Downton, but what good does that do for you elsewhere? We can show that ratings went up for the non-Downton titles. There was a halo effect. That’s what you really want. You want people to be drawn to the whole strand.

How has your experience with Downton shaped how you look at what you buy now?

Eaton: It’s not just Downton that’s changed this, it’s what’s happening in television with returning series. With on-demand technology, people don’t have to watch every Sunday at 9 o’clock. They can watch however they want.

So we are now focusing on other returning series: Poldark, Home Fires, Grantchester, Sherlock — and yes, Sherlock will return. And two new returning series will debut in Downton’s slot in January of ’17: Victoria, the epic life story of Queen Victoria; and a wonderful, completely charming series called The Durrells, about a family in the ’30s who moved to Corfu. After just two episodes in the U.K., The Durrells was renewed.

Masterpiece used to be mini-series and singles. Ten years ago there might have been 12 or 15 titles in a year. Now there might be six or seven, because they’re longer, returning series.

Returning series are where the money is. Streaming rights give these shows a long life, because people will continue to want them. The more seasons you have, the more attention you’ll get.

Does that mean we’ll no longer do mini-series or singles? No, but we will do fewer. We have a one-off coming this year called Churchill’s Secret with Michael Gambon, about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and a little-known event that happened in his later life. We’re going to pick those very carefully.

The other thing that’s changed, of course, is the competition.

When you have a hit, you put yourself in an interesting position of being the one to beat, and of having to beat yourself, having to do it again. That’s where we are. More broadcasters and streaming services are now paying attention to longer-running British dramas or even contemporary dramas. Downton Abbey couldn’t get picked up in this country when it was first put out to market. Now there is a lot more competition for these co-production deals.

It is very, very, very hard to make a hit. We could talk for an hour just about why Downton was a hit. What are those ingredients?

It is a little bit of alchemy. There is an unknown factor.

But what Downton had was — first of all, in the big picture, an excellent time period. This was a moment of social change at an extremely visual time, Edwardian England. In the upper classes, that was quite beautiful.

It also had a creator, Julian Fellows, who knew the material cold and had an absolute love for it. It was a story he was ready to tell, and timing is so important.

When Julian wrote it, he had enough experience to know how to write specifically for television. He wasn’t adapting a book; he wasn’t writing a movie. He wrote it for television with a fully formed cast of 20 characters. Those people were real to him.

Actors Laura Carmichael, left, and Michelle Dockery snap a selfie on the Downton set. (Photo: Carnival Film and TV)

Actors Laura Carmichael, left, and Michelle Dockery snap a selfie on the Downton set. (Photo: Carnival Film and TV)

You have an excellent production team, Carnival Film and Television, insisting on the best talent, from Maggie Smith down to the unknowns. And they produced it all out beautifully. The frocks are beautiful, the flowers are beautiful, the wide shots are beautiful. And they had all that. Those are the main ingredients.

Then comes the tricky thing. When you’re baking, it’s the atmosphere outside that can sometimes affect the product. I think the atmosphere in the case of Downton was the humanity of it. This is a community where everybody is trying to do the right thing. And that’s very much Julian’s view of it: There are stories upstairs and downstairs that depend on each other. There’s a circulation of community between all these people, which I think the audiences all over the world responded to.

My own theory is there aren’t many successful working communities left in our lives. Jobs are short-lived. People are not gathering together as much as they did.

And then, of course, you have romantic plot.

I Scotch tape a list of these ingredients to my wall. After I read a script. I think, “Who do I really care about here?” These are the same questions I’ve always asked, but now I have a little more clarity as to exactly what would appeal to our audience.

Optioning original drama

Do you see Masterpiece ever commissioning drama?

Eaton: We have initiated drama in the past. We initiated Middlemarch, The Buccaneers and the Tony Hillerman mysteries. We also did the American Collection.

The economics are tough. Period drama, or drama in general, can cost up to $3 million an hour to make. When you commission something, you have to be prepared to pony up at least 50 percent of the budget, serious money. And we have not had that kind of money.

PBS has found a way to do it with Mercy Street through an arrangement with Amazon. They basically sell off the back-end rights and get the money up front. We all are looking at options like that. It is extremely heavy lifting to raise a million and a half dollars an hour for a six-episode show. Think about it. That’s a ton of money.

We have optioned a book by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a novel, The Signature of All Things, a fabulous book about an American woman in the 19th century. And we are working very hard to do this as a co-production with the BBC, but it will take extra lifting. It will take additional money, either from contributors or foundations or whatever. So it’s hard to do.

Current: What prompted that deal?

Eaton: I was on a book tour in 2013 for Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS, and Elizabeth was on tour with The Signature of All Things. We have the same publisher, Penguin. I was in Seattle, and the driver who picked me up at the airport said, “Elizabeth Gilbert just left. She said to give you her very best.” And I went on to the next city, and the driver said, “Elizabeth Gilbert wants you to call her.” And the next city, the driver said, “Elizabeth Gilbert wants you to do The Signature of All Things.”

I introduced her to the head of drama at the BBC, and we then optioned her book. We have hired a U.K. production company, Origin Pictures, and a writer, Emily Ballou. We have a first episode script. It is a mini-series. And now we begin the climbing of Mount Everest, which is getting something into production.

Signature is completely different from Eat, Pray, Love. It is a fictional story of a young woman named Alma Whittaker, who becomes a lady botanist. It is set in London, Philadelphia, Tahiti and Amsterdam. Her life covers the 19th century.

Fingers crossed, because there’s still a lot of money to raise. There’s a lot of magic that still has to happen.

You mentioned the Civil War drama Mercy Street, which PBS commissioned and greenlit for a second season. What did you think of Mercy Street?

Eaton: I truly applaud the effort by PBS Chief Programmer Beth Hoppe and her team. It is really, really hard to get anything made. For a drama, there are so many hurdles and it is very difficult. The next step is, how do you sustain it?

Practically every series takes a couple of seasons to really sink in, because there is so much content out there. The first season of any series is sort of the appetizer, you know? It’s just a brief introduction, even if it’s six episodes long.

Anglophile overload?

With PBS now acquiring British dramas such as Call the Midwife, Vicious, Grantchester, Selfridge — how does that selection process work with yours? Do you collaborate with PBS on decisions about what’s Masterpiece and what’s PBS?

Eaton: I think they would say that Masterpiece should be the first stop for producers and distributors of British drama. Masterpiece should be the first stop. PBS has given us considerable money and we have a considerable footprint to fill. They are eager to say to us, “What is your view of X, Y and Z?” If we don’t have room for it or find that it doesn’t fit what we’re doing, we will pass. Then the distributors will work very hard selling it to PBS, American Public Television or the programmers who buy for groups of stations.

We try to work very carefully with PBS because we all fear the potential of “over-Englishing.” We don’t want to make PBS look like the BBC or a British broadcaster. There will be a maximum number of hours, and they’re now coming potentially from three sources: Masterpiece with its increased footprint; PBS, independently acquiring shows like Call the Midwife and Vicious; and the stations.

This is what people like to watch. These shows have ratings. But we all have to be careful that the quality remains high and its growth is not at the expense of other kinds of programming.

Do streaming companies complicate what you’re doing? British streamer Acorn Media announced that it has exclusive North American rights to a new six-part ITV1 drama, The Level. Do you have to keep an eye on Acorn?

Eaton: They keep an eye on what we’re doing.

I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Twenty-five years ago Masterpiece was arguably the only player in this territory. Now there are scores of players, and so much more material.

In terms of Acorn, I don’t know if we’ve gone head-to-head for shows that we’ve wanted and ended up going to them. There are a lot of British-type shows that either we feel are not quite up to the Masterpiece level or maybe we have plenty of contemporary stuff. So it hasn’t been a huge problem.

Dame Judi Dench, left, and Eaton relax on the set of the Masterpiece 2009 presentation of Cranford. (Photo: Penguin Books)

Judi Dench, left, and Eaton relax on the set of the Masterpiece 2009 presentation of Cranford. (Photo: From Making Masterpiece, Penguin Books)

There’s also Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Harvey Weinstein, the film producer and studio executive. I truly admire Harvey’s taste. He can sweep in, buy up all the rights and co-produce War and Peace, which he did. This is a drama I wish we had had.

It ended up with A&E Networks and was offered on A&E, the History Channel and Lifetime. The audience was so low because it’s so not their thing. It was pulled from one of those networks, which upset the producers in England. They made this series, it did fantastically on BBC One, then in the U.S. nobody saw it.

The consequences of that will play out going forward: “If we sell it to this one we get a lot of money — but nobody will see our show.” There’s going to be some shaking out.

Our partners recognize that Masterpiece can deliver an audience up to 5 million people at 9 o’clock on Sunday night. And it is the right audience, very upscale, a contributing and aware audience.

Now can all these competing outlets sustain what they’re trying to do? Are there enough eyeballs in the world? And the people with those eyeballs, do they have enough hours in the day to watch all of this in a way that is sustainable for a series? Each series needs to build enough of an audience to go to a second and third season.

People are overwhelmed by the viewing choices they have now. The amount of television that I watch is overwhelming. I am losing friends, losing sleep and not reading books — all activities I used to do more of when there wasn’t so much television. This is kind of funny, but also it’s kind of scary.

It’s partly a professional requirement to stay up to speed. But I have watched, just in the past six months to a year, a lot of British and American returning series: The Missing, Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Billions, The Affair, Bloodline, The Man in the High Castle. Not to mention the stuff I have to watch for work.

My friends also are watching a tremendous amount of television. Often the conversation when we’re all together at dinner will be, “Have you seen this?” and somebody says, “No, but I am so into this,” another series. In other words, we’re not on the same page.

There’s not much water-cooler television anymore. It’s very fragmented, sociologically.

I’ll say one other thing about the competition for drama series that I expect to be revealed in the next year or two: How sustainable is this amount of high-end drama? It’s getting harder to find available writers and actors, because they are all working all the time. With Netflix, Amazon and others now making their own content, there’s so much original production happening in this country. And the tricky part is the lack of metrics. Netflix doesn’t say how many people are actually watching its programs. Will there be enough people watching these shows for them to keep making money?

Building support for the trust

How is fundraising for the Masterpiece Trust going?

Eaton: We’ve raised just over $16 million, with 17 stations participating. Several donors are contributing over $1 million a year. The return rate of the donors is extraordinarily high: More than 80 percent of them have continued to give a minimum of $25,000 annually over these six years.

The checks come in and are instantly split between the participating station and Masterpiece. It’s spent as fast as it comes in.

This is the idea that my team and I are the most proud of. We generated the idea, right here in this office. It was not an idea that everybody in public broadcasting bought into it in the beginning. We had to fight for its existence and figure out a way to fundraise that would not alarm our colleagues at other stations, while still making it possible for people who love Masterpiece to support it.

We know there are generations who love, love, love the show and want to give directly to Masterpiece. We wanted to figure out how to tap into that, and we did.

Eaton socializes at the Masterpiece Ball in 2012 at PBS SoCal. (Photo: PBS SoCal)

Eaton at the Masterpiece Ball at PBS SoCal in 2012. (Photo: PBS SoCal)

I never had to raise money during the Mobil years, and I never really visited member stations. That was an eye-opener to me. Until we created the Masterpiece Trust and I started going on the road, I didn’t know how deeply attached people feel to Masterpiece. It’s a very deep, emotional attachment.

When people thank me for Masterpiece, it reminds me that there will never be an opportunity like this again. The brand was created at a time when it was possible and relatively easy. And it was given the resources to build. Even through thin times when we no longer had Mobil’s underwriting, PBS propped us up. Masterpiece has really entered the cultural dictionary.

You’ve been with the strand since 1985. How has Masterpiece’s working relationship with PBS changed and where is it right now?

Eaton: It was very much at arm’s length for all the Mobil years, because none of the money came from PBS. Mobil gave over a quarter of a billion dollars to Masterpiece; all of our costs were covered by their underwriting. We were giving the shows to PBS.

I didn’t know people from the stations, and I barely knew people at PBS. All of my relationships were with British producers, and that lasted for quite a while.

Then Exxon bought Mobil and they began downsizing their commitment to us. Eventually they stopped funding us entirely. Then we became completely dependent on PBS for funding.

This was when Pat Mitchell and Coby Atlas were top executives at PBS. They recognized the benefit of Masterpiece, but they also were interested in trying to do more American projects. There was American Family, Gregory Nava’s episodic drama. During this period we produced the Tony Hillerman mysteries. Mystery became subsumed into Masterpiece; they ceased funding Mystery.

Masterpiece shrank considerably in those years because we had no underwriter. Then, with CPB’s help — particularly from programmers Jennifer Lawson and John Prizer — we got a grant from the Opportunity Fund to rebrand the series. That’s when we took “theatre” out of the name. And then Sherlock came our way, and Downton.

Paula Kerger has been a huge champion of Masterpiece, because she came from a development background and knows very well how key Masterpiece is at the grassroots level. It gets viewers to become members of their local stations.

Beth Hoppe is PBS’s chief programmer. Unlike her predecessors John Boland and John Wilson, Beth is a producer. She has been on the frontlines of producing and is understandably making her mark as a programmer. She has a very clear idea of what she would like the PBS primetime schedule to look like and what it should represent.

Overall, PBS is now much more curious about what we’re up to. They want to know what we are considering because they are also in that space looking for programs that would fulfill this vision of what PBS should be.

‘More than a job’

You have been with Masterpiece for so long, you’ve become the face of the show to the press, viewers and now donors. What are your plans for succession as executive producer?

Eaton: It’s very hard to let go. There are a handful of us executive producers who are still in the business. Paula Apsell, for example, has run Nova for a long time. I started at WGBH in 1971 with the belief that I was going to change the world. All of us who grew up in the ’60s were going to make the world a better place. We really thought we could, and we thought public television was a good way to do it.

Longtime Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke pauses for a photo with Eaton at the 1992 PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. (Photo: Current archives)

Longtime Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke pauses for a photo with Eaton at the 1992 PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

To leave it is to leave more than a job — it is leaving one’s life work, one’s commitment to a mission. There has been so much pressure on the mission. Every time you turn around, it’s one thing or another — loss of funding, new technology, competition. I am very proud that Masterpiece has not only survived, it has triumphed.

There is an argument to be made to leave them laughing, to go out on a high.

It’s very hard for me to resist challenges. Seven or eight years ago, the challenge was keeping Masterpiece alive. Now the challenge is, what do you do after Downton? I’m having a little trouble resisting that, even though the smarter thing would be to would be ride off into the sunset. I love that challenge.

I have no immediate plans to ride into the sunset. I do think about it. I talk about it with Steven Ashley, our series producer who is also my partner, my life partner. And then, of course, a good project comes along and I stop thinking.

I know what I would do, however, if I were to leave.

What?

Eaton: I would read non-British novels. [Laughs] I would go to other countries besides England. And I’d watch American films.

Are you okay with the Rebecca Eaton obituary starting out with “The woman who brought Downton Abbey to America”?

Eaton: That’s fine. I’ll take it. But of course, always mindful of the brand, I would hope that they put Masterpiece in the headline as well.

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