Suspecting that Masterpiece Theatre is showing its age after 36 seasons — an eon in TV years — the program’s producers at Boston’s WGBH will “polish” the brand and expand into new media platforms in order to bring more structure and predictability to the schedule and reach the next generation of Sunday night drama fans. The same courtly theme music by French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret will open the program, but it will lose the little tabletop journey of its video opening and half of the series name. The producers will drop “Theatre” and add headings for three distinct seasonal strands: Masterpiece Contemporary in the fall, Masterpiece Classics in winter/spring and Masterpiece Mystery! (working title) in the summer slot Mystery! now fills.
Just five weeks after filing his last Letter from America for the BBC, Alistair Cooke died March 30  at his home in Manhattan. He was 95 and had heart disease. Cooke had delivered the Letter for 58 years, far exceeding his 26 years as a U.S. correspondent for Britain’s Guardian newspaper or the mere 22 years he hosted Masterpiece Theatre.
ExxonMobil will stop underwriting Masterpiece Theatre after spring
2004, the oil company announced Dec. 13. It has spent more than
$250 million on MT and other PBS programs over 32 years. In recent
years, the company has spent about $10 million a year, providing full
funding for the drama series, says Jeanne Hopkins, v.p. of communications
at WGBH, which packages the series. For years before merging with Exxon, Mobil had also supported another series
of largely British dramas, Mystery!, but Mobil had dropped funding
of the sister series Mystery!
Stanford Calderwood, who served only a few months as president of WGBH, Boston, but initiated one of its most enduring franchises, Masterpiece Theatre, died May 9 . He was 81. Calderwood brought together costume dramas from British TV producers with a long-term underwriter, Mobil Corp.—a formula that defines the series today, more than three decades after it went on the air in January 1971. He served in World War II before entering journalism and becoming a marketing exec for Polaroid Corp., based in Cambridge, Mass. After putting Polaroid money behind Julia Child and other WGBH projects, he succeeded Hartford Gunn as president of the station.
Masterpiece Theatre was a relatively short run for Alistair Cooke, and his intros mere appetizers. For more of Cooke, as he turns 90, sample some of his half-century of BBC essays. Some journalists make reporting seem easy, almost effortless. They express wise and frequently complicated ideas with directness, intelligence and wit. Their manner is both straightforward and entertaining — and above all, informative.
Near the end of June 1970, Stanford Calderwood and his wife, Norma Jean, were comfortably settled in their regular rooms in London’s Claridge’s Hotel. Until a few weeks before, he had been executive vice president of the Polaroid Corp. She was an Islamic scholar who took advantage of their frequent visits to England to conduct research at the British Museum. But this trip was different. Calderwood, bored and affluent but not yet 50, had left the corporate world where he achieved success in advertising and marketing, for a life of public service.
Fifty-seven years ago, in her last novel, Edith Wharton told the story of The Buccaneers — a platoon of lovely American girls invading England, plundering titles and winning social success. Then, last winter, the colonies were again attacking the sceptered isle. Americans were conspiring with the BBC to spice up and Americanize the five-part mini-series based on Wharton’s novel. The BBC/WGBH coproduction, which has its first U.S. airing Oct. 8-10, opened in February in Britain, and some British critics charged that the “ratings-grubbing American partners had insisted on a sexy ending,” recalled Masterpiece Theatre Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton at the Los Angeles press tour this summer.