PBS ‘opened a door’ to other projects with ‘Mercy Street,’ chief programmer says

Print More

Antony Platt

McKinley Belcher III plays Samuel Diggs, a laborer who must keep his education and talent for medicine under wraps on Mercy Street.

Though PBS just canceled Mercy Street, the broadcaster’s head programmer sees the foray into historical drama as a success.

The Civil War series revolved around the lives of the staff and patients inside an Alexandria, Va., hotel that had been converted to a makeshift hospital by Union troops. PBS announced March 9 that it would not produce a third season.

“We created a really compelling American drama, and that was what we set out to achieve,” Chief Programmer Beth Hoppe said. “Mercy Street was able to bring history alive for people who might not watch a documentary but who enjoy drama.”

But the costs of producing original drama have been prohibitive for PBS, and in announcing the cancellation PBS said that it couldn’t secure funding for a Season 3. A major underwriter, the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation, had dropped its support after Season 1. Other funders included the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, tourism agencies in Virginia and Electric Entertainment, which acquired international rights. Mercy Street also brought in cash from an in-season licensing deal with Amazon that gave exclusive streaming rights to Prime Video subscribers one week after broadcast.

The six episodes of Season 1 ultimately reached 14 million viewers, a viewership that ranked the show PBS’s second–most-popular drama after the megahit Downton Abbey that season, according to PBS and Nielsen.

Audiences that large appeal to corporate sponsors, Hoppe said, “but we didn’t attract the level of underwriting — or international sales — that we’d hoped for.”

And Mercy Street’s national ratings gradually slid with each of its 12 episodes, according to public TV audience research consultancy TRAC Media Services. Still, the program ended its run well above the current PBS prime-time average of 1.02. Season 1 of the scripted drama averaged a 2.44; Season 2, a 1.56.

Mercy Street’s audience did not meet expectations,” said Craig Reed, TRAC Media executive director. Compared with other costume dramas on PBS — Victoria and Call the Midwife — “it ranked toward the bottom in audience size,” performing on par with the less popular Mr. Selfridge and Indian Summers, Reed said.

“It isn’t that the numbers were unacceptable,” he said, “but that they did not meet the expectations set by the costs.”

PBS changed its scheduling strategy for Mercy Street’s second season, and the show’s ratings suffered without the benefit of the hit Downton Abbey as a lead-in, Hoppe said. But one upside for airing Mercy Street at 8 p.m.: “I’m happy to say that 40 percent of viewers watching Mercy Street stayed for Victoria,” this season’s Masterpiece offering, she noted.

In the end, Hoppe said, “this is not a ratings game. We saw both seasons of Mercy Street as a success.”

‘Super important to experiment’

Hoppe discusses the show’s second season at at an event in New York City in November. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Hoppe said Season 1 “really leaned into” the hospital practices of the Civil War, when both trauma medicine and the concept of triage for serious injuries first emerged. “As we dug into the medical story, we realized a lot of other stories weren’t being told,” such as the lives of fugitive slaves of Confederate masters seeking asylum in the North. So Season 2 broadened its plotlines.

“I think the narrative arc, writing and acting improved noticeably in Season 2,” said Gary Denny, director of programming for Wisconsin Public Television. “It’s important for PBS to try new things, especially in the drama space.”

Hoppe agreed. “It’s super important to experiment,” she said. “I hope this is just the first project in a genre that we can find a way to be in.”

Becky Magura, president of WCTE in Cookeville, Tenn., heard positive comments from viewers about Mercy Street during its run. She added that she’s “very proud that PBS offered this American drama, and proud of what it was able to accomplish in two seasons.”

Viewers of Oregon Public Broadcasting were especially enthusiastic. Four Mercy Street episodes scored between a 2.5 and 3 rating, according to Dave Davis, VP, television production. “OPB viewers seem to like scripted drama,” Davis said.

For Mercy Street, “the ratings were solid and consistent each week” said Mary Gardner, OPB director of television programming. She recalled speaking with one older viewer “who loved the series because of its historical value, and when I told her it would not be back she was very disappointed.” Offering viewers an American drama “was a plus,” Gardner said.

While Mercy Street found fans amongst its regular viewers, it never caught on at pledge time, a relatively new expectation as PBS and stations experiment with fundraising around core programs.

Inside Mercy Street, a behind-the-scenes special from producer Bob Marty, generated $48,764 for 82 public TV stations in March 2016. In the June drive, that fell to $1,275 for seven stations. In December, three stations aired it but made no money, according to PBS pledge reports.

PBS produced a Mercy Street finale pledge event for Season 2. An early drive report this month said it generated $49,845 for 110 stations so far. One public TV membership director, who requested anonymity because PBS has asked stations not to discuss pledge information publicly, said that many stations rated the program a 1 out of 5 based on its performance.

“Dramas don’t typically make good pledge programs,” Hoppe said. “Downton was the rare exception there.” She said Mercy Street’s pledge performance was not a factor in its demise.

Mercy Street also showed producers and funders that PBS is willing to take chances.

“The fact that we were able to pull off Mercy Street has opened a door,” Hoppe said. “I’ve had several interesting calls from folks in Hollywood” pitching various projects, she said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re thinking of you because you did something different.’”

Hoppe’s team is currently eyeing other American dramas as well. One is Alta California, set in the late 1800s, about an arranged marriage between two families, one Mexican-Californian and the other European American.

Hoppe cited “a couple other projects in various stages of R&D” but declined to provide details. She said one is based in the 1600s and another in the 1900s.

“The idea is to explore American histories through great dramatic storytelling,” Hoppe said. “I’m hopeful there will be an announcement in the not-too-distant future.”

For Hoppe, Mercy Street “was a passion project of mine.” She was heartened at a flurry of fans using the Twitter hashtag #SaveMercyStreet after PBS’s announcement.

Could a groundswell of viewer enthusiasm bring the show back?

“If that fan demand ended up generating the revenue to make that happen,” Hoppe said, “I’d be the most excited person in the bunch.”

22 thoughts on “PBS ‘opened a door’ to other projects with ‘Mercy Street,’ chief programmer says

  1. I thought it was well worth watching, and will miss the series. Mercy Street has been included in the 100 Period Dramas: Black History Month list on Willow and Thatch. It’s a consolation that the series may have opened the door to other future quality programming.

  2. Mercy Street is only story that put to light what really happen in the civil war era. I hope another broadcaster bring season 3 of this great series.

  3. What a shame!! I was really looking forward to season 3. This was an excellent series and I’m holding out hope that someone will bring it back.

  4. I kept waiting for Mercy Street to start back up again & just saw that it was cancelled! What a shame- I’m a big Civil War buff & loved the show! Too bad for us fans I guess-

  5. I loved this series. It opened my eyes to many things I did not know about the Civil War. Please make a 3rd or more seasons.

  6. I loved the series! Loved the history, the developing relationships, the rawness of emotion felt by the main characters. And it was OUR history (vs British period pieces which are great, too). Please, PBS, don’t leave us hanging! Bring Mercy Street back!

  7. I’m so disappointed that PBS chose not to continue Mercy Street for a 3 season. I’m may stop watching it because that happens in a lot of there series which leaves the audience hanging

  8. Re-watching Mercy Street for a second time with my husband who is also a history buff and did not see it during its initial airing. Thoroughly enjoying it again! Amazed at how many special “moments” I am discovering which I missed the first time around. I, too, was extremely disappointed it was cancelled. I loved how history was brought to life, the many sub-plots, and the romantic chemistry between Jed and Mary. Hopefully, there will be a season 3 in the not too distant future.

    • I’m a direct descendant of the green family, have a large dossier of documents from the Green family. Haven’t digitalized it, but when I do, let me know if you’d like me to share it with you.

  9. A marvelously executed ensemble piece; fine representation of complex issues and viewpoints during this turbulent period. Its cancellation left this rabid history nut wishing she had deeper pockets.

  10. I ‘m tired of watching good series that don’t continue. Home Front was abruptly cancelled and was a much better series than The Mid Wives and now Mercy Street. I’ll be canceling my support to PBS if this continues.

  11. Bummed this was cancelled. James Green Sr/Jr. are my great great great great great/great great great great grandfathers, respectively. Crazy to see what there lives may have been like, despite the fictionalization.

    • Very saddened and disappointed to realize that I just watched the last episodes of Mercy Street. My wife and I truly enjoyed this series, Such a well made drama that was exciting and moving. We did not see it when it was airing, wish we could have supported it at that time. This was truly great TV and it leaves a whole in our TV lineup. Here’s hoping that it finds it’s way back into production.

  12. Saddening! I am tired of watching British History ONLY even though watching Poldark is fun. I really did enjoy this show and was looking to pick up but I hate things that are unfinished. I want more North American drama stories to watch. Maybe they will get a clue and provide North American viewers with our history. Tired of watching BRITISH PROGRAMMING. I would love to see US and Canadian, hell even Australian drama pieces would be more interesting than British constant programming!

  13. Thoroughly enjoyed the series. I’ve been doing a living history impression of a Civil War Hospital Steward & Surgeon for 24 years. Friend of mine were consulted on authenticity. The show generated a lot of interest by the public of Medicine in that era. I was sad to see it end, because of funding. Personally, I was disappointed in the last episode of the series, which left the audience hanging in so many ways. Does Mary recover and return to Mansion House. What will be the fate of the Green Men, Sr. & Jr.? Does the new hospital administrator depart ? ( I would hope so.) What will happen to Stringfellow after he returns to his regiment? Etc. It would indeed be nice if someone, somewhere would pick up the series. It has been long enough since the series has ended that even the replacement of any major characters by other actors would be acceptable.

  14. Very sad and unhappy to hear this! Meanwhile, PBS is showing a disgusting series like Sanditon. PBS seems to becoming repetitive and boring in what they broadcast on Masterpiece. To leave the story hanging and not at least wrapping up the series is a discredit to the fans.

  15. I am so sad there will not be a season 3. I have thoroughly enjoyed this show. I too will hope for someone to pick this up.

  16. So many great shows get cancelled after 1 or 2 seasons. I loved Mercy Street, and Home Front. Both killed off early.

    A lot of people have been telling me they won’t watch new shows until they have at least 3 seasons, because they get hooked, then it’s cancelled. Of course, not watching early seasons leads to more being cancelled.

    I think producers are cutting their own to throats by cancelling quality shows. Potential viewers of future shows are being driven away in advance.

  17. Just watched this amazing series. Saddened it was to costly to do a 3rd. Series. With all the rubbish that’s available, good quality drama shows are what we need. Especially ones produced by PBS, the absolute King of drama pieces. Please please bring back this wonderful series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *