How Rebecca Eaton’s ‘tailor-made’ role at ‘Masterpiece’ fits with a new strategy for original dramas

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After leading ”Masterpiece” through many changes over 35 years, Rebecca Eaton is now focused on developing original dramas.

Rebecca Eaton recently stepped into a new role at Masterpiece, the British drama series that she steered to popularity, financial sustainability and critical acclaim during 35 years as executive producer.

With Susanne Simpson taking over daily operations as executive producer in November, Eaton is an at-large EP, working to develop original productions and cultivate high-end donors for the Masterpiece Trust. The at-large role allows Eaton to focus on the work she loves most — collaborating with writers and producers.

“Frock dramas,” as Eaton calls the series that PBS viewers love most, were once the exclusive province of Masterpiece. But as a downside to the popularity and financial success of Downton Abbey, original British productions now set off eye-popping bidding wars among streamers and premium cable networks. To sidestep those competitors and deliver shows that will reel in viewers and revenues for public TV, Masterpiece needs to refine its content-development strategy and prepare to take an ownership role in new productions.

In this interview, Eaton explains how Downton Abbey positioned Masterpiece as a profit center for public TV in the digital world and why acquisitions alone are no longer sufficient for sustaining Masterpiece. This transcript has been edited.

Current: The role of executive-producer–at-large is a new one for you and Masterpiece. What will you be working on?

Rebecca Eaton: Susanne Simpson, the new EP of Masterpiece, and I kind of created this job, and it’s tailor-made to how we work here.

My first love has always been working on the content and the scripts — and developing relationships with the writers, producers, directors and actors. That’s what I wanted to do. It’s also where Masterpiece needed to double down on our efforts. And I thought it was a good time to have fresh eyes on all of the other stuff — the strategy, the brand and our plans for the future. Susanne is thoroughly up to speed on all of this and has stepped up with energy and dedication.

When I started, years and years ago, all Masterpiece programs had already been produced, so my role was focused on screening and acquiring them. Or, if broadcasters like the BBC had already greenlit something, we would just read scripts and decide which ones to acquire.

Aidan Turner starred in “Poldark,” the recurring “Masterpiece” drama that delivered its final season last fall. (Photo: Robert Viglasky, Mammoth Screen)

Today most of our relationships are with independent producers — scores of them. Wolf Hall was made by Colin Callender’s Playground Entertainment, Sanditon was produced by Red Planet Pictures and Mammoth Screen makes Victoria and Poldark. They come up with most of the ideas now, then sell them to us and other partners.

Susanne and I went through and divided up the job of managing our relationships with the companies. That includes staying in touch with them, hearing what their ideas are and reading their scripts once they get a production going. When Masterpiece invests in a drama from one of the companies, the responsibilities change to overseeing the co-production. That involves screening rushes, looking at cuts and giving notes.

What will you be doing differently now?

Eaton: We are beginning to generate ideas here — ideas that would work for Masterpiece. And then we talk to some of these independent companies and PBS Distribution about their interest in initiating our projects.

“The Buccaneers,” a 1995 miniseries adapted from Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel, followed the adventures of wealthy young Americans who marry into the British aristocracy. (Photo: Joss Barrett/Mobil)

This is the absolute reverse of how things used to work, though it did happen occasionally. We initiated Middlemarch, for instance, years ago. We had the idea, found a writer — Andrew Davies — and brought it to the BBC. And we did this with Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, which is one of my favorite pieces of literature. But we weren’t the primary funder of those co-productions.

What we’re doing seems necessary as more and more platforms outbid PBS for British drama. Susanne and I are doubling down on the effort to develop ideas that we could own.

To be doable, the productions have to be modest; they can’t be giant, sweeping, huge, expensive.

“Precinct drama” is a term of art in television that originated with series like Hill Street Blues. It means filmed in a primary location. Downton Abbey was a precinct drama. The precinct was Highclere Castle.

Rather than a million different locations, you need to have one central location to make a project affordable.

How did you decide to create this new role?

Eaton: There’s another part to this that happened completely coincidentally. 

Literally the day I was coming in to say ‘I’m ready to step back,’ I went for a regular mammogram and discovered that I had breast cancer. I’ve had chemotherapy, radiation, a lumpectomy — the whole deal.

So at the moment that I was prepared to step back, I also kind of fell back! 

The reason I even talk about this now is the bully pulpit, the opportunity to say, “Get a mammogram.”

PBS is a family. I say this to all my PBS sisters — and to all my PBS brothers who have children, wives, aunts, uncles, mothers — make sure you and the women in your families have an annual mammogram. 

This came at me completely out of the blue. I was lucky to be treated very early. 

As you’re getting into the rhythm of your new role, can you talk about specific projects that you’re developing?  

Eaton: I can’t, because the deals aren’t done. There are two that are moving fast. Other ideas are in earlier stages, and we’re in conversations about how they would be funded. I’m being cryptic here because it is so early.

But the ideas are coming out — some of them are from my bottom drawer. These are ideas that I’ve had over the years, or they’ve been pitched to me. Sometimes I’ve read books and thought, “This would be fantastic if we could find a way to make it into a TV show.”

They’re coming from writers we have worked with in the past and really like. They get who we are, and we can work well with them. And they’re from a handful of the British companies that have proven they know how to do this kind of programming. We’re having conversations with them, about what they might like to make, what would work for them, too.

What needs to happen before you can greenlight one of these projects?

Eaton: The most important thing is to figure out who’s going to pay for it. We’ve been having those conversations with PBS Distribution and independent companies and distributors in the U.K.

Now when we think about new programs, we have to think about profitability. We have to consider not only whether they’ll be popular and accessible to an audience, but whether they will generate money if we invest in them.

When we find partners, we begin to have specific conversations about how much money everybody is willing to risk to do this. In other words, what’s the size of the idea we should deal with?

We know how much it costs to make a Grantchester, Downton Abbey or Victoria. We know what you can get for $2 million, $3 million and $4 million. Once we know the size of the budget, then we start having conversations with writers and producers to say, “How about this idea or this book?” There’s a back-and-forth process that goes on.

Once we’ve done the creative work with the writers and producers, we go back through the financing with PBSd. And off we go.

This way, we won’t be at the end of the food chain for this kind of programming. In England, the BBC and ITV are the primary funders. They decide what dramas they want to put on their air, and they invest a lot of money. We are an additional funder, so a lot depends on what they want in the first place.

It gets harder to align these things because the British commissioners might decide they want to do a lot of cop shows, thrillers or true crime. I’ve been in this job long enough to see the cycle of that happening now. After a period of a lot of costume dramas, right now there are a lot of thrillers and cop shows. This is one of the reasons we’re looking to start up our own potential series of costume dramas.

It’s very clear what works for our audience and why they become members of their local stations and subscribe to Passport. They are drawn to returning high-end costume dramas — we call them “frock dramas.” They are potentially multiseason, which is different than an adaptation of a book or a three-part series. Frock dramas are what PBSd wants to invest in, and what we want too. These are the dramas our audience loves — Downton Abbey, Victoria, Poldark.

“World on Fire,” an epic historical drama that debuts Sunday on “Masterpiece,” stars Zofia Wichlaz and Jonah Hauer-King. The BBC has already commissioned a second season of the series. (Photo courtesy Mammoth Screen)

That said, we will continue to do miniseries like Mrs. Wilson and the upcoming World on Fire, which is the exact opposite of a precinct drama. It is set in four different countries during World War II.

How soon could the first of these original shows air?

Eaton: I would say it might be 2022.

What role does PBSd play in your funding and decision-making?

Eaton: PBSd is a really good partner. It ensures that Masterpiece and our whole drama ecosystem have enough revenue to continue to deliver these kinds of programs.

Masterpiece is a revenue stream for the whole system. It is partly funded by PBS, and it pays money back into PBS through PBSd. Individual stations can sell local sponsorship for it and attract members. I think people don’t quite realize this.

Downton was profitable and created a revenue stream that went back into PBS and into programming.

Now when we think about new programs, we have to think about profitability. We have to consider not only whether they’ll be popular and accessible to an audience, but whether they will generate money if we invest in them.

I’m not necessarily sitting in my office just dreaming up what would be a fun program, because there are a number of potential partners here. We have to be strategic about what will work both for the audience and for the bank account.

What impact did Downton Abbey have on Masterpiece?

Eaton: There was a confluence of events around the time that Downton was made. It was very, very good for us. And for PBS too, I think.

Our funding mix has changed drastically since Masterpiece Theater started in 1971. All the funding came straight from Mobil, our corporate underwriter. It was an image buy that made them look good to the movers and shakers in D.C. Mobil put a lot of money into both Masterpiece Theater and Mystery! PBS didn’t put any money into those series. This was how our funding worked when I became executive producer in 1985.

When Mobil left as a funder in 2004, we took another seat at the PBS table with our hungry siblings — Frontline, American Experience and others. PBS was our only funder, and we combined Masterpiece Theater and Mystery! into one series.

Now HBO, Cinemax, AMC — all of them are interested in British drama. That means we have to be vigilant and nimble. We are in storm-tossed seas with so many platforms and so much money being invested in all genres.

Everything began to change around the time that Downton Abbey started. Viking Cruises came in as underwriter. We started the Masterpiece Trust. It took us a while to get that trust going, but Downton Abbey certainly helped. It became possible to start conversations with high-end donors, because we needed the money to survive.

Viking Cruises is the first major sponsor since Mobil left. They’ve been very generous and easy to work with. I think the association with Masterpiece, especially with Downton Abbey, really helped their business.

And now PBSd also invests millions in Masterpiece.

We still depend on PBS for funding. Because of their circumstances, PBS pretty much gives us the same amount of money every year, even though the costs of British drama are soaring. So our funders are actually PBS, PBSd, our sponsors and the Masterpiece Trust.

Has the increasing competition for British drama been the downside to Downton Abbey’s success?

Eaton: Yes. When Masterpiece Theater began, we created an appetite for high-end British drama in this country and we nurtured it. And, arguably, when Downton became a hit, others programmers discovered it. It wasn’t long before The Crown came to Netflix.

Maggie Smith won a 2012 Prime-time Emmy for performance as Violet, dowager countess of Grantham, the family matriarch in “Downton Abbey.” (Photo: © 2010 Nick Briggs/ITV for Masterpiece.)

All the other networks had turned down Downton Abbey. They were not interested in it — whoops! Those were the good old days when no one but us was interested in programming for Anglophiles.

I was surprised that people were so nervous about Downton Abbey. My catchphrase was, “‘Anglophilia’ is not a dirty word.”

Now HBO, Cinemax, AMC — all of them are interested in British drama. That means we have to be vigilant and nimble. We are in storm-tossed seas with so many platforms and so much money being invested in all genres. Every year something like 350 new scripted programs are produced.

Was it complicated way back then, with one extremely powerful funder who would flex its muscles every now and then? Yes, that was complicated too, but it seemed simpler.

It’s very important for everybody in the system to know that Masterpiece is in the streaming world too, along with BritBox and Acorn. Our Amazon Prime streaming channel, PBS Masterpiece, helps generate the money we need to buy and produce more drama.

Masterpiece is also bringing in money to stations through Passport. Our programs are the most-watched shows on Passport.

How do you continue to leverage Masterpiece’s popularity on digital platforms?

I think we need to improve Passport — its marketing and the user experience.

It’s three years old, and the end-user interface is still difficult.

Let’s evaluate what we have — something that money can’t buy anymore — a brand. The brand is Masterpiece. We own that. It means something.  

How do we use that in this extremely crowded world? Masterpiece becomes a curator. It tells viewers, “We’ve done the work for you. You can rely on us to give you a really, really good British show.”

We have to cultivate the brand. We have to market the brand.

Is Perry Simon, the new PBS chief program executive, supportive of what you’re doing?

Eaton: Perry knows drama, and it’s good that he’s at PBS. He oversaw British drama at BBC America, and we can speak in shorthand about a lot of the actors, producers and directors.

Of course, I think Perry should have been given more money to spend on the prime-time schedule, and particularly Masterpiece, because that’s where the audience is.

Our audience numbers are pretty solid. Our continuing refrain is to get everybody to recognize that keeping Masterpiece healthy means investing more money into it. That is the direction things are going in.

Any regrets about shows that you recently lost out on?

Eaton: Well, I might have said — Dracula from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the creators of Sherlock. They were great partners, and we all loved working together.

Sherlock was such a hit for us that, of course, the streamers noticed and said, “Oh, we want to do that too.” I believe in the end Netflix paid five times as much as we could ever pay for Dracula. It was huge amount of money.

Having seen Dracula. I don’t think it would have worked for our audience. It’s very bloody.

How is Masterpiece doing with younger viewers?

Eaton: We know from our social media activity that younger people are aware of us. We’re doing a lot of things on Twitter and Facebook, and they are responding, so their awareness of Masterpiece is healthy. When we do a program about beautiful young people trying to be together when they are in love, younger viewers will show up!

Forbidden love will do it every time, but also just love stories and family sagas.

The average age of our audience has remained roughly the same. Viewers age into Masterpiece, and that’s good. Younger viewers come in and out of the audience, and at a certain point they’re ready to stay with us.

The bigger challenge, of course, is declining viewership across all of broadcast television. There are fewer people watching.

With your success and connections, had you considered moving to a commercial broadcaster?

Eaton: I started in public television when it was just beginning. Its intentions and mine were perfectly aligned. I was a child of the ’60s. We had plans to change the world, or at least make it better, and so did public television. I loved that.

I loved being part of a scrappy, underfinanced, very creative institution that wanted to give voice to the voiceless and be available to everybody who could get a television set. To me, it felt very much like I was doing the right thing.

For my first 15 years or so, I was making local programs — documentaries, art shows, and working in radio and television. I learned the ropes of how to be a producer at WGBH, which was enormously creative in those years, and things were relatively inexpensive. There was very little competition.

Masterpiece was happening right in the same building and was already an iconic series when I arrived in 1971. Years later, I found myself in charge of it, and it looked like a very easy job, compared to producing documentaries or putting on a live nightly show. It was a desk job that involved watching shows and choosing which ones you liked.

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. (Photo: WGBH)

Then it got much harder as the corporate underwriting ended and the competition picked up. But I also began to see the cycles of how things would go.

And that is one reason why I never wanted to go anywhere else. PBS and WGBH invested in people for the long haul. If this were a commercial enterprise and the ratings for Masterpiece dropped, I would be fired, or if we’d lost an underwriter, they might say, “Let’s get a new executive producer.” Public television doesn’t work that way. It has invested in people for life.

It’s kind of amazing and wonderful to me to go back now to my first love — programming — after having been the front person for the series for so long.

One thought on “How Rebecca Eaton’s ‘tailor-made’ role at ‘Masterpiece’ fits with a new strategy for original dramas

  1. Great history of Rebecca’s experience with Masterpiece. I’m one of those viewers who have “aged” into the series. Rarely watched it when I was in my 20s and 30s, now several decades later, it is my first look on Passport. Thank you Rebecca for bringing us some great drama .

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